Smaller liquor stores in a fight they can't win

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December 15, 1996|By NORRIS WEST

LEGAL QUESTIONS aside, there is no justification for preventing a 15,000 square-foot beer and wine store from going into business in Howard County. The concept is sound, even if technical problems sink plans for a Total Beverage outlet.

The proposed store would bring an unprecedented variety of merchandise to Maryland consumers of beer and wine at slightly reduced prices, an enormous benefit to many buyers. I say this not exactly as a teetotaler, but as someone who can count his annual purchases of beer and wine on one hand -- and maybe a couple of fingers.

The flimsiest reason against the store is that existing liquor stores would be unable to compete against a gigantic operation, planned for Ellicott City's new Long Gate Shopping Center.

Like Major League Baseball owners, some of the little guys have banded together. They have hired a top county attorney to wage war against a business they view as a capitalist monster and they have enlisted the moral authority of a Baptist minister whose church sits across Route 103 from the Total Beverage site.

Instead of making sure that their current customers remain loyal, these owners cry for protection at county liquor board meetings to challenge Total Beverage's right to operate in Howard. Money that could go toward improving their stores will pay attorney Richard Talkin's legal fees.

Their complaints that an alcoholic store the size of a skating rink will drive them out of business seek to evoke sympathy. Instead, they elicit pity.

Afraid of competition

These are people, no doubt, who started their businesses to compete in the marketplace. Suddenly, they are afraid of competition because the marketplace is changing.

Mega-stores are dominating an increasing number of retail businesses. This is the era of Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy and 55,000-square-foot supermarkets. Even New York City, long the domain of neighborhood grocery stores, is giving way to large supermarkets.

Volume and low prices are key. Packard Bell Electronics became the largest seller of computers with its motto to vendors: "Stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap."

Whether or not this big-box trend will end civilization is open to debate. And the government has a responsibility to control sales of alcohol. But short of monopoly and trusts, the marketplace is the controlling force.

And with the trend toward big and cheap, it was only a matter of time before the prefix "mega" would attach itself to alcohol retailing. Sadly, liquor store owners believe the liquor board's job is to undercut competition.

When attorney David Carney began his argument in support of his client, Total Beverage, he gave the liquor board three issues to consider: whether the store is suitable, its effect on the neighborhood and whether it is needed to accommodate the public.

First, the store would be among a gang of mega-stores at Long Gate with Target, MJDesigns, Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Blockbuster Video.

Second, there is nothing to indicate that Total Beverage would disturb the neighborhood. Although the Rev. Bruce Romoser has a clear view of the site from the front of his Bethel Baptist Church, the store's customers have no reason to cause havoc there. Wine and beer bought at the store likely will be consumed elsewhere.

The third issue is the most interesting. Is such a large outlet needed to accommodate the public? If Total Beverage's statement that nearly half of its retailing space will be for off-brands, the answer is yes. The store's selections would be staggering -- 5,000 kinds of wines, 500 varieties of beer and 200 brands of soda and bottled water. Some customers would love to be able to pluck from the shelves Dixie Crimson Voodoo Ale or Mas des Bressandes Cabernet Syrah.

This would be in addition to the gourmet section with cheeses and delicacies in a place being promoted as the "Fresh Fields" of beer and wine.

Unfortunately for Mr. Carney and Total Beverage, two Himalayan legal hurdles could turn the plans sour.

One is that Maryland law prohibits liquor licenses to any "chain," a term the state code fails to define, probably because legislators thought it needed no definition. Total Beverage has three stores in Virginia. A fourth store, in Maryland, certainly would qualify it as a chain, despite Mr. Carney's contention that it isn't.

Also, state law prohibits anyone from holding more than one liquor license in the state. The Dart Group, the retailer's parent, again is on thin ice. Dart has stock in Shoppers Food Warehouse, which sells wine and beer in two Maryland stores.

The liquor board will decide those issues, possibly Tuesday. But this sorry episode certainly has not brought out the competitive spirit of small liquor store owners, who could compete with service, if not prices and selection.

They had better rediscover their latent sense of competition, soon. Even if Total Beverage loses its bid, mega-retailing is coming their way.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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