Battle brews over beer and wine sales in grocery stores

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

A renewed push is under way in Colorado to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer and wine.

Your Choice Colorado — a coalition backed by King Soopers, Safeway and
Wal-Mart — conducted media events across the state, including one in Grand Junction, to kick off a campaign to change state law limiting grocery chains to one full liquor license and allowing remaining stores to sell only 3.2 percent beer. The coalition looks to either promote a measure in the upcoming session of the Colorado Legislature or put a measure on the 2016 election ballot.

Proponents of the effort say outdated state law limits the ability of grocery stores to sell full-strength beers and wines, including those made in Colorado. Tyler Sandberg, a spokesman for Your Choice Colorado, said the coalition has received support not only from major grocery store chains, but also business and community leaders, consumers and elected officials.

Others oppose the move, though, and express concerns changing the law could hurt smaller, independent liquor stores and force them out of business.

The Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which represents independent liquor stores, is conducted a counter campaign dubbed “Keep Colorado Local.”

Jeanne McEvoy, chief executive officer of the CLBA, said allowing grocery chains and big box stores to sell full-strength beer and wine would cost Colorado small businesses and jobs. “When you spend money on alcohol in Wal-Mart, Kroger or Safeway, at least half of it leaves the state, whereas the money spent in small businesses in Grand Junction stays and circulates in the community.”

Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said her board opposes the measure as well. “We have seen data showing that where this has happened in other states, consumption of beer and wine in restaurants has decreased,” Riggs said. “Seventy percent of the restaurants in Colorado are individually owned, single-unit operations, and this will hurt small restaurants.”

Among those in attendance at the Your Choice Colorado press event were representatives from the largest grocery store chains in Grand Junction.

Kristine Staaf, director of public affairs and government relations for Safeway, said the effort is driven by consumers. “We hear it every day, the frustration of mothers buying dinner for the kids, needing to make two stops to buy wine,” she said. “Anyone who doesn’t think that is an inconvenience hasn’t had to buckle a kid into a child seat multiple times.”

Grayson Robinson, a retired Arapahoe County Sheriff, called the change the right thing to do and the right time to do it. “The current laws have been on place for a very long time, and I think it is time to replace those antiquated laws.”

While Robinson said he supports the change as a way to increase competition, his biggest concern as a former sheriff is public safety: “This can be and will be accomplished safely. Grocery stores for years have sold 3.2 beer and it’s been done responsibly. There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue.” He said he’s spoken to other law enforcement officials around the country where full-strength beer and wine are sold in grocery stores who told him there were few, if any, affects on public safety. “I wouldn’t be here if I thought there was any challenge to public safety.”

Mesa County Commissioner John Justman also spoke at the Your Choice Colorado event in favor of the change. “It gives consumers choice and more convenience.” Justman also said he didn’t think liquor stores would be hurt by the change. “I would assume that customers of liquor stores will keep going to them and make the choice for themselves whether to fight the lines at a grocery store or make the extra stop at a liquor store.”

But Riggs said the potential effects of the change on small business were another reason the Colorado Restaurant Association board chose to oppose the effort. “One question is, Will this limit variety?” she said. “Colorado is known for its craft beers, many of which get their start in smaller liquor stores. If those go out of business, a lot of smaller craft breweries will as well, and that will mean that restaurant customers will not have the same access to variety as they did before.”

But proponents argue small businesses actually could benefit from the change. Staaf said Colorado craft breweries would have an opportunity to introduce their products to a national market. “Purchasing decisions are made locally in-store,” she said. “Individual store managers have flexibility to sell locally made products.”

Proponents also cited a report to the Colorado Legislature prepared in 2009 by Henry Sobanet, now budget director under Gov. John Hickenlooper, that concluded sales of full-strength beer and wine in grocery stores wouldn’t lead to widespread liquor stores closings. “Many states with more lenient liquor laws than Colorado — permitting grocery and convenience store sales of full-strength beer, wine and spirits — have higher per capita incidence of liquor stores.”

McEvoy said report doesn’t apply to the latest proposal because it only considered beer sales and failed to take into account how the industry works in Colorado.