The transition to private liquor sales is just a month away, but some Washington State liquor stores are closing early as employees jump ship. That’s got neighboring businesses worried about what will happen if stores stay vacant come June 1st.
MERCER ISLAND, Wash. — Mercer Island only had one liquor store. It was in a tiny plaza with a pediatric clinic, an office for an online bike store and a True Value hardware store with a spots bar on top.
There’s still about a month to go until the state government officially steps out of the liquor business, prompted by the passage of Initiative 1183 last year. But state liquor store No. 72, along 13 other stores around the state, closed its doors earlier than expected last Thursday, leaving the plaza looking empty.
The early closures were the result of a shortage of employees, as liquor store workers move on to new jobs before they’re laid off (or possibly rehired by new private owners) next month.
True Value, the only other physical retail store in the plaza, is already seeing an effect on business.
“We’re definitely losing customers,” says Tony Machis, who works at the True Value, though it’s tough to tell the exact numbers yet since the liquor store only closed a few days ago.
Even though this particular store is going to reopen in the same location, Machis says he’s still worried about business in the plaza. QFC is less than half a mile away, and since they’ll also be stocking liquor in June, the competition will be fierce.
In the 15 minutes I spent in the plaza, a total of six cars pulled into the parking lot. One driver pulled over and went into True Value. Three pulled into a spot, saw the liquor store was closed and drove straight out. One man got out, yelled over and asked me if I was opening the store and left when I said I wasn’t.
Only one woman walked over to the entrance and read the piece of paper with the notice, “The Liquor Store #72 will close temporarily on April 26, 2012, pending new ownership.”
“I had no idea they were closing,” Ellen Hochberg said.
Hochberg said she wasn’t happy with how the privatization of liquor was decided. “I just thought Costco bought the election,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean she’ll avoid shopping for liquor at the large grocery retailers. Hochberg said whether she’ll be back to liquor store No. 72 (or whatever it’s called then) when it reopens will depend on price and selection.
The transition to private ownership of all Washington liquor stores is set for June 1st. But there’s still a lot to do by then.
The state auctioned off the licenses for all 167 existing liquor stores last month. Come June, the owners of these licenses will be the only ones who will have a right to open liquor stores under 10,000 square feet.
One of the restrictions is that these new stores have to stay within a mile radius of the original store. Negotiation of lease and location is up to the new owners. The state has negotiated a buyback plan with most of its liquor distributors. Re-stocking the shelves is also up to the new owners.
Current liquor store employees are at risk of losing their jobs: New owners who re-hire the existing staff will be rewarded with a rebate, but that’s no guaruntee, and the uncertainty has led some employees to find jobs elsewhere.
The sudden turnover with no new hiring happening by the State means a shortage of employees. That’s what prompted the 14 store closures last week, including the one in Mercer Island, as the State sought to redistribute the dwindling number of staff to other stores.
With grocery and retail giants like Safeway and Costco entering the liquor game, the key for survival for smaller speciality stores taken over from state seems to be price and selection. But the survival game could also mean night or day for neighboring stores that rely on spill over customers drawn in by the alcohol.
In the meantime, storeowners and employees like Tony Machis from True Value wait worriedly to find out the real effect the change will have on their business.
For a complete list of liquor store auction results: email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find liquor stores currently open: http://www.liq.wa.gov/stores/find-store