Changes to Oklahoma liquor laws compared to high flying act
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Monday, September 19, 2011
9/19/11 at 8:23 AM
Oklahoma's liquor laws are like a bear riding a bicycle on a high wire while juggling flaming sticks - balance is everything.
A legislative task force studying the idea of allowing grocery stores to sell strong beer and wine will determine if the state can restring that wire without bringing the whole thing down in a flaming mess that leaves nothing but an angry bear and a broken bike.
"It's complex," said state Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, and co-chairman of the committee that has its first meeting Monday at the state Capitol.
The task force brings lawmakers and representatives of all the interested parties - liquor stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, wholesalers, wineries, distributors, breweries and several others - to the table.
And everyone's got a stake in the question.
Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Roy Williams is a member of the committee and an advocate for allowing strong beer and wine sales in grocery stores.
His arguments: It's more convenient for the consumers, brings competition to the market and will help recruit new retail and talented young people to the state.
Thirty-four other states allow wine and strong beer sales in grocery stores, and Oklahoma should, too, Williams said.
Breaking the liquor store monopoly on wine and strong beer would help speed the state's efforts to bring retailers like Costco into the state.
And modernizing the state's turn-of-the-century liquor laws would help change attitudes about Oklahoma, among potential employers and talented young workers.
But, he admits, changing the law is easier said than done.
For one thing, much of Oklahoma's liquor law is written into the state Constitution, so changing it requires a vote of the people. A requirement that constitutional questions only deal with a single subject further complicates the issue.
"The devil's in the details," he said.
Williams said he's convinced a compromise can be worked out that will make all parties happy, but some of the other members of the task force are dubious.
J.P. Richard, owner of Cache Road Liquor and Wine in Lawton, said the idea would take away about a quarter of retail liquor stores' business. The result: many locally owned businesses will go out of business in favor of big out-of-state chain stores.
"I would lose half my wine sales, and I would survive, but I'd have to lay people off," Richard said.
For consumers, it will mean less choice. Big stores will carry only a limited number of brands and distributors will be less willing to bring low-volume products into the state.
Under the current system, liquor stores can only sell wine, liquor and beer. One of the best ways of getting a competitive advantage is to push their distributors to bring in more variety in products: interesting new wine and beer labels that might not have huge sales, but might intrigue some customers.
"Basically, what you get in a grocery store - good ones, bad ones, whatever - is brands that are nationally distributed. What you don't get is what you can find in any good wine shop in the state of Oklahoma."
Oklahoma liquor stores currently have more than 17,000 products available through distributors. In Texas, where grocery stores sell strong beer and wine, there are fewer than 12,000 product lines available, Richard said.
He also predicted the result would be higher prices as distributors try to make up for the higher costs of delivering to more stores and liquor stores look to make up for lost business.
He scoffed at the idea of allowing liquor stores to sell others products - as happens in some other states - as a compensation for their lost wine and beer sales.
Changing the delicate balance of Oklahoma's liquor laws is "dismantling an industry that's not broken," he said.
Richard isn't the only skeptic on the task force.
Task force member Zach Prichard, president of McAlester-based Choc Beer, said broadening the sales of strong beer would definitely put many liquor stores out of business, which would translate into fewer retail outlets for niche-label beers like his own.
"I think a lot of people assume 'Hey, I'm going to get all the beers I can buy at the retail liquor store in Walmart or Whole Foods.' ... and that's not going to be the case," Prichard said "There definitely would be less availability of beer to the consumer."
Task Force member Jim Griffith, CEO of OnCue Express, a Stillwater-based convenience store chain, said convenience stores also are resisting the idea.
Convenience stores fear that the ability to sell strong beer and wine could come with the sorts of restrictions currently on liquor stores - limited hours and days of operations, limited number of stores owned by one person and limited access to minors.
"Every time you start thinking about something, there's questions that come up and nobody has been able to answer any of those questions so far," Griffith said.
He also doesn't like proposals to allow liquor stores to sell chilled beer or other products.
"What else would they be allowed to sell? Would they sell everything else that I sell, too? There's too many questions out there," he said. "In everything I've seen proposed there's winners and losers. I don't know how they're going to get it where there's no losers."
But Williams said he thinks there is a way to restring the high wire without dropping the bear or burning down the circus tent.
"One thing I'm certain of is you have to get consensus among the retailers, the grocery stores, the distributors - the industry, I would call it," he said. "It can't be us against them.
"I'm firmly convinced it's not going to be easy to come up with whatever compromise there is."
Original Print Headline: Changing liquor laws complex
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World file