Spirits hit the shelves in Washington

Bellevue Way Safeway Manager Rochele Anderson in the store
Bellevue Way Safeway Manager Rochele Anderson in the store's liquor aisle the night before sales began. The store began selling spirits in Washington at 6 a.m. Friday.
— image credit: Nat Levy, Bellevue Reporter

Amid massive fanfare, and fear over price changes, liquor hit the shelves of thousands of Washington grocery stores Friday morning.

Most who strolled through the newly stocked liquor aisles were simply curious about what the changeover would do to their pocketbooks. But price changes to a lot of common brands didn't scare away a steady stream of buyers.

"I don't mind paying a few bucks more," said Jonnathon McCoy at the Factoria QFC location Friday afternoon. "You pay for the accessibility." McCoy counts himself as one of the 1,128,904 citizens who voted in favor of Initiative 1183, a measure highly funded by Costco that closed all Washington State Liquor Stores and allowed retailers over 10,000 square feet to sell spirits.

The move to sell spirits in grocery stores represents a long fight at the ballot box. Several previous initiatives failed, but in 2011 voters approved the measure with a total of 58 percent in favor.

Once the excitement died down, potential sticker shock set in. Customers were worried about wholesale markups. The verdict when liquor hit the shelves, and prices came out was mixed.

The larger brands - Jack Daniels, Smirnoff etc. - featured prices roughly similar to state charges in the past.

"If you have production of as much as a million bottles per year, which many of these big companies do, you can afford to take a lower margin to drop the price on the shelf," said one liquor industry expert, who didn't want to be named.

Smaller brands, many of which are just as recognizable, were the ones most hit by the change. The insider said some types of Evan Williams bourbon and Vikingfjord Vodka have nearly doubled in price.

The other piece of sticker shock to be aware of could come at the register. At most stores, prices listed on the shelves are pre-tax. The state has a 20.5 percent spirit tax, and an additional charge of $3.77 for every liter, which equates to approximately $3 for a 750 ml bottle, and more than $6 for a half-gallon.

Some stores, such as Bartell's, created price tags that showed both the pre-tax and post-tax amounts customers can expect to pay.

Stores with special benefits for cardholders put out significant savings for their members. Safeway on Bellevue Way, and the Factoria QFC both showed deals for members saving as much as $10-$15 on certain types of liquor.

Friday's big day was still in jeopardy as late as the day before. Thursday the State Supreme Court struck down a challenge to I-1183 by a 5-4 vote to clear the final hurdle for spirit sellers.

Many at stores said it will take some time getting used to the prices, but they were generally pleased to not have to go out of their way to find a state store.

Harry Narloe grabbed a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka off the shelves at Factoria at a pretax price of $27.49, a total near $36. State liquor stores sold the same 750 ml bottle for $34.95.

Narloe got a good deal it turns out, even though he was prepared to spend more for the convenience.

"(The prices) can be a bit bad, but for the ease of access it's worth it," he said.

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