By Yasmin Tadjdeh | PA Independent
Legal issues may bring an end to Pennsylvania's year-long experiment with controversial wine vending machines in grocery stores.
The wine kiosks, owned by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, or PLCB, have been riddled with controversy over the past year, from system-wide mechanical errors to poor sales. Earlier this month, the PLCB released a letter to Simple Brands LLC, the contractor which operates the wine dispensers, saying the company owed it nearly $1 million due to billing issues, and legal action may be taken if the state is not paid within 45 days of said letter, or by Sept. 20.
“There is an issue of non-payment,” said Stacey Witalec, agency spokeswoman, who added that she could not discuss further details because of potential litigation. Simple Brands did not return calls for comment on Aug. 8.
Thirty-two wine kiosks have sprouted up since last summer, but they have largely flopped in Pennsylvania. Originally, the PLCB had planned to open 100 locations.
Each dispenser was expected to sell between 30 to 50 bottles per day, said Witalec, but only 15 of the 32 kiosks reached the lower end of that goal based on weekly sales data. Wine sales were prohibited on Sunday.
Since the beginning of May, only three kiosks have sold more than 180 bottles in a single week--one kiosk in Philadelphia two times, another kiosk in Collegeville, Montgomery County three times, and a kiosk in Pittsburgh once.
Mechanical issues have plagued the kiosks, with customers complaining that the driver’s license reader was not working properly and the kiosk was not dispensing wine, said Witalec. Those major issues have been repaired, Witalec said.
But the kiosks have an “Orwellian” character, said Jay Ostrich, director of Public Affairs for the Commonwealth Foundation, a fiscally conservative think-tank based in Harrisburg.
The PLCB’s claim that the kiosks offer convenience for the consumer is flawed, because a customer has to blow into a breathalyzer and look into a camera, where a government employee verifies his purchase, Ostrich said.
“The taxpayers and consumers of Pennsylvania have rejected a program that the PLCB has been trying to shove down the throats of those parties. This is really a symptom of a much greater illness in that the PLCB has continued to try to mimic private enterprise and has been a complete failure at doing so,” Ostrich said.
Witalec said the kiosks were brought in “with the intention of trying to bring convenience and value” to Pennsylvanians, and help grocery stores be a one-stop shop, but noted that the concept was not for everyone.
Recently Wegmans Food Markets pulled their wine kiosks from their stores, stating that they did not fit in with the grocery store’s environment.
“Customers want the convenience of purchasing wine in a supermarket, but found the choice too limited in the kiosk. Also, our customers rely upon the knowledgeable, personalized service our employees provide every day, something an automated kiosk just cannot provide. In the end, the kiosks just did not fit well with our store environment,” a Wegmans representative said in an emailed statement.
Witalec called it “disappointing” that Wegmans had removed the kiosks, but said it was up to each retailer to decide whether dispensers worked for their business.
Wine kiosks are another example of the “ineptness” of the PLCB, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.
Miskin called the wine machines a “fiasco” and said they are confusing and not consumer-friendly. The government needs to remove itself from the liquor business and allow the private sector to sell alcohol, Miskin said.
Turzai last month outlined HB 11 before the state House Liquor Control Committee, which would privatize the state’s liquor stores and remove Pennsylvania from the alcohol business. The bill would auction off 1,250 newly created liquor store licenses to private owners.
Daryll Hawthorne, of Philadelphia, said that while she would like to see beer and wine sold in grocery stores, kiosks are not the right way to go about it.
“I don’t trust electronics and technology to sell alcohol,” said Hawthorne. “We don’t need alcohol sold in machines … It’s just unreliable.”
Alcohol should not be sold like candy or sodas, she added.