By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
6:22 PM EST, February 23, 2013
Nine months after the controversial Sunday alcohol sales proposal became law, supermarket operators are pleased and package store owners are not — just as critics predicted last year.
Consumers, who were at the heart of the legislation, have been pulling beer off the supermarket shelves at an increased pace with the added convenience of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays and summer holidays.
Stan Sorkin, the president of an association that represents about 300 supermarkets statewide, said beer sales are up about 8 percent overall statewide in their stores.
"Stores near the border are up approximately 20 percent,'' Sorkin said. "For us, it's worked out the way we thought it would. … To tell the consumer you can't buy beer on a Sunday is a very negative connotation. That was a very backward policy.''
But most of the state's package store owners are not pleased, saying they aren't seeing the same increase. They say they have failed to make any substantial profits and essentially have broken even since the new law took effect last May 20.
"If there was an increase in beer [sales], it didn't go to my people," said Carroll Hughes, chief lobbyist for the Connecticut Package Stores Association.
Instead, Hughes said, the retailers have seen higher costs and not much in the way of increased sales on Sunday, according to a survey he conducted after the busy Christmas and New Year's season.
"They don't feel they did anything more with this noble experiment of Sunday sales,'' Hughes said. "They're telling me they broke even. I'm not surprised on the conclusions of my people. Even if you break even, you've increased your expenses.''
In a compromise after decades of avoiding Sunday sales, the package stores agreed not to fight the legislation last year after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made a major push for changes in the liquor industry. Malloy had wanted a series of other changes, but the compromise was 52 Sunday openings, plus the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays that Hughes noted were sunny, warm days with brisk sales.
Since Sunday sales are still optional, Hughes said about 50 of the state's 1,150 package stores have chosen to remain closed that day. The increased sales on Sunday, he said, clearly went to supermarkets, which are allowed by law to sell beer but not wine or hard liquor.
"It all went to the supermarkets, which is where people are on Sunday,'' Hughes said. "It didn't cost the food stores a penny to get an extra two percent of the business. … We said all along that the people are in the supermarkets on Saturday and Sunday.''
Dominic Alaimo, who operates an Enfield package store that is two miles south of the Massachusetts border, has a completely different view. For years, Alaimo has been the most outspoken supporter of Sunday sales among package store owners — refusing to join Hughes' association or pay dues.
"For me, it's been going fantastic,'' Alaimo said in an interview. "I'd like them to add more hours to Sunday as an option — two more hours.''
Alaimo rejects the complaint from other retailers that paying for utilities on Sundays is an issue, saying overhead at his small store is minimal.
"The utilities are running even when I'm not there,'' he said. "The coolers are on.''
Alaimo predicts that, on a full-year basis, he could generate an additional $100,000 per year in gross sales, about $2,000 for each Sunday.
Noting that his Route 5 store is a straight shot down the road from the Massachusetts border, Alaimo concedes that the success or failure of Sunday sales is often reliant on geography.
Some officials say nine months is not enough time to draw firm conclusions.
Ben Jenkins, a spokesman for the national Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said his group would need at least a full year of data in order to analyze the results. Known as DISCUS, the group has testified consistently in favor of Sunday sales in Connecticut and around the country. Along with the Connecticut Food Association, which represents supermarkets, DISCUS paid for full-page newspaper advertisements to push for Sunday sales.
Sorkin, the president of the supermarket association, agreed that a year's worth of data would be more conclusive.
"A lot of these guys were not happy with the law,'' Sorkin said. "They didn't aggressively go after the Sunday sales business. We're also in a bad economy. I think you've got to cycle a year.''
Statistics from the state Department of Revenue Services show that the number of gallons of beer sold increased by 3.11 percent from May through the end of November to nearly 33 million gallons. The gallons of wine went up by 2.25 percent, and distilled liquor went up by 4.89 percent. In addition to the extra gallons sold, the overall taxes collected on alcoholic beverages went up by 4.65 percent through the end of January, according to the tax department. The additional tax collected is $2.169 million, which some officials attribute largely to Sunday sales. The highest revenue came in June, followed by November and December.
Brian Durand, Malloy's deputy chief of staff and chief aide on liquor issues, said that even the package stores have increased sales under the new law.
"Connecticut retailers sold more wine and beer and spirits in 2012 than they did in 2011,'' Durand said in an interview. "If you look at the gallonage, you can't buy wine and spirits at supermarkets. It can only be bought at our package stores.''
He added, "From our perspective, the numbers point to a success for Connecticut and for retailers. This was an effort to increase consumer convenience. It did what we hoped it would do — keep people in Connecticut stores'' and discourage them from crossing the border.
But some of the biggest liquor retailers in the Greater Hartford region say that Sunday sales have not been profitable for them.
"My customer count went up, but my average transaction went down, which caused my sales to go down,'' said Mike Bradley, the operator of Crazy Bruce's Liquors in West Hartford. "People do not have to keep an inventory in their house anymore because we're always open. When people had the inventory in their house, they drank more."
Jim Ransford, the owner of the large Connecticut Beverage Mart in New Britain near the Westfarms mall, said Sunday sales have backfired.
"Since we're open on Sunday, our Saturday sales are a joke,'' said Ransford, who has 33 years in the business. "We get more sales on Friday than Saturday. It's simple economics of supply and demand. … No one would believe us. Sunday is our slowest day of the week. All these grand promises last year. People coming in from all over the country making promises. Where are you guys now?''
He added, "A lot of the stores on the shore are closed on Sundays now. They gave up. Summertime for them is like Christmas-time for us. When the sales down there didn't happen on Sunday, we said, 'This is not good.' … I hope Sundays work out to be the greatest thing ever, but right now, it isn't. And that's fact. That's in red ink on my paper. I would switch in a heartbeat'' back to six days per week.
Both Ransford and Hughes said that some package stores are afraid to close on Sunday because they fear they would lose even more business.
"The 1,100 stores spent $7 million and did minuscule business, but few plan to change anything,'' Hughes said.
Alaimo agreed with Hughes that he has not made much money on the extra new items that have been permitted for sale, including lemons and limes.
"There's not big money in that, plus they go bad,'' he said. "You've got to refrigerate them.''
"The money is in potato chips, Slim Jims, beer nuts,'' Alaimo said. "If you come into my store, you can't buy potato chips. But if you go into Stop and Shop, you can buy all the chips and beer you want. Does that make sense?''
Courant staff writer Brian Dowling contributed to this report.
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