A coalition of supermarket owners and shoppers are calling for the state Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie to pass reforms to the state’s outdated liquor laws during the lame-duck session, ending January 11.
The focus is a 1962 state law that restricts entities to a limit of two liquor licenses, therefore preventing supermarkets from selling beer, wine and spirits. According to the “Retailers for Responsible Liquor Licensing” coalition, there are at least 45 states that permit beer to be sold in supermarkets, while 33 states allow both wine and beer to be sold. Other states have no regulations on beer, wine or spirits sold at food retailers.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) called the current regulations ridiculous, and has been working since 2007 to pass legislation that would allow supermarkets to gradually increase the number of liquor licenses they hold in the state to 10 from two.
“These laws are holdovers from a bygone era, when only 'mom and pop’ corner stores dotted the landscape,” the Majority Leader said. “More critically, the outdated cap was created more than 50 years ago to combat price fixing and to fight organized crime –concerns that are clearly outdated now.”
Greenwald explained his legislation, A-2002, would update the state's liquor licensing laws, create jobs and stimulate the local economy. “It is time for New Jersey to do away with its vintage collection of laws and embrace modern solutions. In doing so, we will join a majority of states that have adopted a new approach,” he said.
Greenwald noted his bill would not increase the number of licenses a municipality may issue; rather, it would ease the “draconian cap” on New Jersey businesses, expand consumer choice and promote economic growth.
Greenwald’s bill is co-sponsored by Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex). It is before the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee.
“It is time to modernize shopping in the state of New Jersey,” Spencer added. “It makes no sense for customers to make two stops to buy what they need for a meal. It is time to allow New Jerseyans to purchase wine or beer in a supermarket – just like what shoppers can do in most other states.”
A.J. Sabath, executive director of the Retailers for Responsible Liquor Licensing coalition, lauded the Assembly members for their efforts to provide customers with competitive pricing and greater choice in the purchasing of beer, wine and spirits when shopping in New Jersey.
“Our coalition members are calling for the convenience of being able to purchase dinner and a bottle of wine all in one stop,” Sabath said. “It is inconvenient to purchase one part of the meal at a grocery store, and then have to go to a liquor store to complete it.”
Sabath noted the legislation is well-timed, as there are a number of issues arising across the state with the sale of A&P to competing supermarkets. Many A&P stores had liquor licenses that pre-existed the 1962 law, allowing them to sell alcohol. But with the corporate sale to other supermarkets, new owners are quickly learning that the liquor license is not transferrable.
This has prompted major supermarket owners, such as Acme and Stop & Shop, to call for the passage of the state law. As it now stands, the long-serving liquor store operations in these stores are being forced to close, with long-time employees laid off and long-time customers asking “Why?”
The brunt of the law is being felt in places like Allendale, Bergen County, where the A&P store has transitioned to an Acme, ending the tradition of “one-stop shopping” for groceries and wine. Acme already holds two licenses in New Jersey, forcing the closure of the local liquor department in Allendale.
“Having the ability to purchase wine and spirits while doing regular grocery shopping is so convenient,” said Anne Kay of Allendale. “The section is very good and of course the employees are terrific. The addition of the liquor department gives us a reason to go to this A&P (now Acme), as opposed to going to a supermarket that doesn’t have one.”
Stephanie Casey-Dada said the Allendale community is happy to welcome Acme, but the liquor department was “one of the biggest perks” of shopping at the local supermarket on De Mercurio Drive. “I can’t imagine the store without it,” she said. “I would hate to bring my business elsewhere.”
A Monmouth University poll showed that 76 percent of New Jersey residents who purchase alcoholic beverages would like the option at their local grocery stores. Changes to the current law would open the market and allow businesses at the current two-license cap to purchase available or dormant licenses, which are currently unused because of a lack of demand the cap causes.
By lifting this cap, supermarkets will be incentivized to expand in New Jersey, creating more jobs. Sabath noted a typical supermarket employs between 200-600 people and companies spend approximately $25 million to build each new 100,000-square-feet facility.
Opponents to the bill – mainly large liquor retailers – claim that Greenwald’s bill would make it easier for minors to buy alcohol, based on the premise that supermarket employees would not have the proper training to ascertain a shopper’s age.
In comments, the executive director of the New Jersey Liquor Store Alliance said supermarkets should not sell alcohol because, he estimates, half of the employees working there are under 21.
“It becomes obvious that having only a register system that asks for an age verification ID request is the least of the concerns we have when it comes to deterring underage access to alcohol,” said Paul Santelle, who also owns Garden State Discount Liquors in Perth Amboy.
In response, Sabath pointed to FBI studies showing policies to prevent underage sales to minors are more successfully enforced by large chain supermarkets than by corner liquor stores. New Jersey records show no violations over a recent three-year period by grocery stores in comparison to hundreds of liquor stores with hundreds of violations, predominately for sale to minors, in the same time period, Sabath said.
Opponents also claim the legislation would destroy the independent liquor store business in New Jersey. Sabath said he was unaware of any negative impact to New Jersey packaged goods stores in communities where supermarkets with a liquor license co-exist.
“In Cape May County, a major supermarket with a liquor license exists in the same strip mall as a liquor store that continues to operate with a positive revenue stream,” Sabath noted. “In fact, the 45 others states that have fair and open markets all have a thriving liquor store industry.”
In Paramus, there are more than 30 independent liquor stores within a four-mile radius of a four supermarkets that sells alcohol, Sabath added. “It is far more likely that a mega-chain liquor store giant is putting ‘the little guy’ out of business and wants to maintain their monopoly on the marketplace.”
Learn more about the issue at WhyNotNJ.com.