Skip navigation
Supermarkets Skirt Restrictions on Alcohol Sales

Supermarkets Skirt Restrictions on Alcohol Sales

While Costco fights to privatize liquor sales in Washington, grocers who've become resigned to restrictive licensing laws and other limitations are taking the edge off with novel approaches to selling beer and wine.

In Pennsylvania, beer can only be obtained at a restaurant, bar, bottle shop or distributor. Sales of wine and spirits are limited to 619 state-run stores. But Wegmans — a vehement supporter of several failed wine-at-grocery bills — has managed to bring beer and wine into stores in the state.

The chain obtained restaurant licenses that allow it to sell beer — limited to two six-packs that can either be enjoyed on premise or taken home with other groceries — from some of its Market Cafes. Its latest introduction in Collegeville, Pa., is “The Pub at Wegmans.” Beer isn't its only draw. Last week it hosted a tour of wine and foods from around the world for $25. Another plus for visitors carrying out packaged goods: the restaurant's no-tipping policy.

Then there is a new self-service wine vending machine in its Mechanicsburg store. The 18-foot-wide and 10-foot-tall kiosk acts as a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board satellite store with a PLCB employee monitoring transactions remotely. Wegmans doesn't get a share of profits, they all go to the PLCB. But the 700-bottle selection positioned alongside its cheese shop helps draw shoppers. Consumer reaction has been positive but I can't help but wonder about the apprehension with which some will insert their license (to confirm their age) while blowing into a breathalyzer (to confirm sobriety).

Further north, supermarkets in Michigan have the right to sell beer, wine and liquor, but in-store tastings are off-limits. That's where upscale D&W Fresh Market's virtual wine tastings come in handy. Although the retailer isn't able to incite trial and incremental sales by providing samples in-store, it encourages virtual tasters to purchase three featured wines and open them at home in preparation for an hour long Web chat hosted by one or more D&W wine specialists. The most recent tasting focused on wines of the Andes.

In Virginia, K-VA-T's limitations aren't legal since licensed supermarkets can sell beer and wine. In fact, the availability of licenses is such that shoppers are bombarded with wine choices whether they're perusing aisles at Wal-Mart or picking up a prescription at CVS.

To stand out in an extremely competitive market, K-VA-T caters to shoppers with more obscure tastes. While shelf space doesn't allow for less popular brands in-store, an online ordering website, called The Private Reserve, does. Shoppers choose from 92 brands online and a distributor fills the order and delivers wine to the store. Members can even request wines that aren't on the special order list. They have to pay for the wine at the time of pick-up, so why not add some complementary groceries to that cart?