Superstore story uncorks a flood of responses

VINTAGE POINT

February 13, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Sometimes a topic uncorks a strong response from readers.

My recent column about the possible entry of Total Beverage, the Virginia-based chain of wine "superstores," into Maryland was one of those.

Here's what some readers think of the idea:

From Peter Griffith, Baltimore: Enjoyed reading your column this Sunday as usual, but wanted to comment on retail markup as actually experienced by the "regular customer."

My wife and I routinely get 20 percent to 30 percent off retail price at the shops where we go regularly (Pinehurst and the Roland Park Eddie's). So consequently we are paying about what someone would get in D.C. or Virginia.

I would hate to see the cavernous "superstore" replace the relative intimacy of the small shop. I enjoy personal service! And when it comes to wine, quality and informed advice do matter.

Comment: Your concerns are shared by many wine consumers, and they are valid ones.

To buy wine in a vast store where the staff knows nothing about the product is a depressing experience. Go to virtually any grocery store in Northern Virginia and you'll see the result: vast wine departments with high prices, bland selection and no help.

That's why there will always be a place for small specialty wine shops that emphasize strong product knowledge and individualized customer service. As you note, it is a common practice for the top retailers in the state to give their best regular customers a substantial discount on their wine purchases. But these discounts aren't for every customer. Total's prices are.

My point is not that Total is a better place to shop than a Pinehurst or an Eddie's but that it deserves a chance to join in the competition along with everybody else. As for the level of service at Total, I defer to my next correspondents:

From Sam and Laura, Columbia: We just read your Vintage Point article about Total Beverage in Virginia and couldn't agree with you more. My girlfriend and I made a trip down to Chantilly a couple of weeks ago after getting a suggestion from a friend. Total Beverage is amazing. The selection is wonderful but we feel the most impressive thing about the store is the friendly people working there. These folks clearly know their wine and are very helpful.

We are new to wine and are experimenting with many different ones to find what we like most. The Total people made many suggestions which we took and are pleased with.

In fact, even if Total charged premium prices we would still go there just for the people. We will be assembling some friends together and going on a Total field trip. Total Beverage has our total wine business. It's definitely worth the trip.

Comment: I've left out your last names in order to protect the guilty.

Many readers don't know this, but going down to D.C. or Virginia to stock up on wines at attractive prices and then bring them back to Maryland is illegal. Maryland's venerable comptroller, Louis L. Goldstein, doesn't like this type of activity and periodically sends press releases warning about the evils of wine-legging.

Meanwhile, thousands of Marylanders blithely ignore him as they continue to break one of the state's most unenforceable laws. Why do you think that every year the District of Columbia leads the nation in per-capita alcohol purchases by such a wide margin? A lot of those capitas drive cars with Maryland tags.

Now if Mr. Goldstein really wanted to divert those dollars into Maryland's coffers, he'd try to persuade the General Assembly (a wholly owned subsidiary of the state's liquor lobby) to make Maryland such an attractive place to buy wine that there would be no reason to go anyplace else.

Some modest suggestions:

* Eliminate restrictions on chain ownership, so tough price competitors can go head-to-head. Don't worry about one competitor sewing up the market and raising prices. Success breeds new challengers.

* Let retailers bring in their own wines directly, while letting wholesalers sell to the public. Middlemen in other businesses aren't protected from being cut out. Why should wine be different?

* Allow volume discounts to take place openly and legally. Under Maryland law it is illegal for a wholesaler to give a big buyer of a wine a discount for buying, say, 10 cases of a product. This so-called "pallet pricing" is common under-the-table practice in the business anyway, in the form of extra cases. Why not do it on the up-and-up? Volume discounts are legal for beer. Go figure.

* Eliminate the requirement that wholesalers "post" all prices of wine in the Beverage Journal. Let the wholesaler decide when and where to advertise. If he makes bad decisions and alienates retailers, he'll soon be out of business.

* Cut the paperwork for wineries that want to sell in Maryland. The state is notorious for its 15-page forms.

* Withdraw Montgomery County's authority to operate liquor stores. It chases potential Maryland tax revenues into the District. Montgomery County could support some of the best private stores in the country if it were a free market.

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