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Tag Archives: three-tier system

Winebits 381: Direct shipping, consolidation, Prosecco

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direct shippingLots of kinks to work out: Direct shipping, despite its successes over the past decade, is still a tiny part of the wine business, just single percentage points of the $17 billion in sales. One reason for that, of course, is three-tier, which makes it difficult for wineries to ship to consumers in different states. And three-tier has more to it than even those of us who think we know it can imagine; witness the lawyer suing Illinois wineries for not charging sales tax on shipping fees. This is perfectly legal in Illinois, where the law allows private attorneys to recover unpaid taxes on behalf of the state. Much of the coverage has been critical of the attorney, but that misses the point. Illinois law is vague on whether sales tax should be charged on shipping fees, so how how can direct shipping ever become more than a niche business if laws crucial to its success are as vague as the Illinois law? Because, given three-tier, this is certainly not the only vague, poorly written, or unclear law dealing with the subject.

Retailer buyout: Majestic Wine, one of the biggest retailers in the United Kingdom, has bought another British retailer, Naked Wine. This is bigger news than it seems, since Naked Wine has a trendy U.S. division that sells what can best be described as craft wine on-line at discounted prices to its members. It means that Majestic, facing tremendous competition from grocery stores, is trying to find wine that consumers can’t buy at grocery stores. Given the increasing importance of supermarket wine sales in the U.S., this may be a sign of things to come in this country (within the confines of three-tier) as retailers look for exclusive products to fend off grocery stores. It’s also another indication that retailers want to get bigger to fend of the Costcos, Walmarts, and Aldis of the world.

Nuts to Champagne: Prosecco has passed Champagne in sales at British grocery stores in news that is so shocking — given the British love affair with Champagne — that it should worry not only the Champagne business, but retailers around the world. If the British are buying Prosecco, the Italian bubbly that is at least half the price of Champagne, what does that means for retailers elsewhere? Has Champagne priced itself out of some markets? Do consumers prefer the softer, sweeter taste of Prosecco? Or are grocery stores playing a role in what’s going on? Even the story, from a British trade magazine, had a panicked tone.

 

Winebits 375: Grocery store wine edition

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grocery store wineThis week, how grocery stores are changing the wine business:

Suing the state: Texas doesn’t allow non-residents to own more than five liquor stores, unless the owners are related to each other. This “just us kinfolk” exception (as a lawyer friend of mine calls it) has allowed Texas-owned chains like Spec’s and Twin Liquors to put together hundreds-store operations. It’s also why Walmart is suing the state to overturn the kinfolk law and why it and Kroger are pushing two bills in the state legislature to eliminate the exception. Neither are likely to go anywhere — courts have traditionally ruled in favor of these kinds of laws, citing three-tier and its constitutional protections, and the legislature almost always avoids offending the big Texas liquor chains. Still, that Walmart and Kroger are willing to spend the money on a seemingly hopeless cause speaks volumes about how they think the world is changing. Starting now may give them a chance later to reform beer, wine, and spirits retail sales in Texas.

Stopping at the supermarket: Nielsen reports that U.S. grocery stores (including Walmart, Costco, and their ilk) sold $8.6 billion in wine in 2014, which accounted for about 42 percent of the country’s store-purchased wine. In other words, almost half of the wine sold in 2014 came from a grocer. Imagine what that number would be if Pennsylvania and New York allowed grocery store wine sales. We can write about Robert Parker all we want, but that’s not the news in the wine business. The real news, the development that wine writers should be paying attention to, is that most of our readers have no idea (and don’t care) who Parker is, and they want to know what wine to buy at their Walmart or Kroger. Which is why a grad student named Mark Thornton may be the next Parker.

One more time: Speaking of Pennsylvania, its state house has approved a bill to end the state’s liquor store monopoly. This is apparently as much a tradition in the Keystone State as Punxsutawney Phil, and makes as much difference in changing the law as groundhogs do in forecasting weather. Still, the debate is fun. Said one lawmaker: “The other side is talking about the No. 1 drug, alcohol, like it’s milk and bread. We’ve got to have more of it, more convenience, for the No. 1 drug in our communities.” The other side, that wants to reform the system, didn’t miss a beat, either: “Even Russia and China have given up on the idea of a state-run monopoly.” So you’re a commie if you oppose reform, and a crack dealer if you support it. Politics is a grand business, no?

The end of the three-tier system?

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three-tier systemPaul Mabray, who knows this stuff better than almost anyone, says the end of the three-tier system is coming. It will probably be later rather than sooner, but Mabray is convinced that technology, combined with three-tier’s built-in inefficiency, will make the system obsolete.

The Wine Curmudgeon mentions this because my views on three-tier are well known. The system, which mandates how wine is sold in every state, says consumers can’t buy wine from the producer (with some exceptions), but must buy it from a retailer, who must buy it from a distributor. Buying wine from an Internet retailer, the way we buy clothes from Overstock.com or computers from New Egg, is almost always illegal. In this, three-tier is constitutionally protected, so we’re stuck with it until the end of time or until we reform campaign finance laws, which is about the same thing.

But Mabray, the chief executive officer for VinTank, which helps wineries use the Internet and social media to market their products, sees the situation from a completely different perspective.

Market access should not be constricted by antiquated regulations, but by market choice,” he says. “Yes, there needs to be regulation to enforce a regulated product but forcing it to go through a mandated tier structure is outdated.”

Mabray said this during last month’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry presentation, and I was so intrigued by what he said that we talked about the subject this week. He reiterated it during our chat: Trying to stop the advance of technology with artificial barriers is almost always futile, and three-tier will eventually break itself.

How that will happen involves lots of supply chain geekiness, but Mabray is convinced that Internet technology — the same thing that has allowed Amazon to make money by selling diapers for next day delivery, unheard of a decade ago — will come to wine. Three-tier as we know it will break down because it will be too expensive and too complicated to work the way it does now. Even the distributors, who have the most to lose, will want to change it to make it more consumer-friendly.

Perhaps. One reason our views are so different (besides my crankiness) is that Mabray sees an economic model ruled by efficiency. I see an economic model ruled by state legislatures with vested interests, whose idea of a supply chain is something you tow your car with. I hope he’s right about this, but I won’t be surprised if he isn’t.

More about three-tier and direct shipping:
Could the Internet screw up direct shipping?
Amazon.com, Prohibition, and the three-tier system
The Supreme Court and retail direct shipping

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