THE MAY numbers are in and, despite my best efforts, beer consumption in Pennsylvania is down for the 17th consecutive month.
As reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, we’re drinking less than 23 gallons per person a year. That’s about 3 1/2 pints a week, sports fans – the lowest rate since 1947.
Naturally, Keystone beer sellers are getting nervous. But instead of figuring out how to solve the problem, they’re pointing fingers at – who else? – Harrisburg.
The main culprit, they say, is the state’s antiquated beer laws, specifically the one that says distributors are prohibited from selling anything less than a 24-bottle case.
“We have the most obnoxious case law in the country,” says Jay Goldstein, president of the Pennsylvania Beer Wholesalers Association. ” . . . We preach moderation, we’ve supported the change in DUI laws, and then we have a law that says you can only sell a full case of beer. It’s insulting. It’s the worst public policy you could have in this era.”
Agreed, agreed, agreed.
But every year someone introduces a bill to change the law, and every year it gets ground into dust – by tavern owners trying to protect their sixpack turf and teetotalers from the Capitol’s Pennsyltucky contingent.
So, here’s my modest proposal for beer distributors: Clean up your act.
Actually, I can’t take credit for an original thought here. The notion cropped up in – of all places – the Inquirer wine column, where Liquor Control boss Jonathan Newman was crowing how wine and spirits sales were up 7.5 percent in the past year.
“I think we’re converting beer drinkers into wine and spirits drinkers,” Newman told Deborah Scoblionkov. “If you go to some beer distributors, they look like state liquor stores did 30 years ago. They’re grim places.”
Your average beer distributor looks like something out of the last scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Housed in a tin Quonset hut, it’s dimly lit and dirty. Stacks of dust-covered cases sit on splintered pallets, grouchy clerks crouch behind bulletproof cashier windows, age-old bottles from an extinct brewery await a clueless buyer. There’s no price list. The place’s idea of merchandising is Miss Michelob’s semi-annual T-shirt giveaway.
Admittedly, the whole seedy atmosphere has its appeal. Hunting for your favorite brew without the assault of slick advertising is a refreshing break from those obsequious money-grubbers at McDonald’s and Banana Republic.
And, what the hell, beer basically sells itself, right?
Goldstein believes kids, raised on Pepsi, leave school with a sweet tooth. Distributors who used to depend on college fraternities to run through kegs and cases now find themselves competing against pitchers of rum and coke.
If you need any proof, look around and count the women inside your average distributor. (Hint: She’s over at the liquor store picking up a fifth of Stoli Ohranj.)
Goldstein told the Post-Gazette, “All we can do is stand there and get pummeled and lose more business.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Instead of standing there, I suggest he and any other distributor worried about the bottom line take a ride up the Northeast Extension to Shangy’s in Emmaus, Pa.
That’s where the Hadian family spent $3.5 million to build the state’s best distributor. I’m not just talking about the 3,000-plus labels on hand. Or the cigars, the glassware or the huge walk-in cooler.
This place is well-lit. It’s as clean as an auto showroom. It’s staffed by people who know what they’re selling.
And guess what: Sales are up by 45 percent this year, according to Nima Hadian, the beer-crazed son of this family of Iranian-Americans.
“Laborwise, it’s insane,” Hadian said. “But in the big scheme of things, this is why we do what we do. My family didn’t come into this business to stand behind a cage with a Casio cash register and move boxes of beer.
“If you want to sell $60 or $100 cases of beer, they should be clean. The glass should be shiny. Boxes are neatly stacked. It’s a lot of work . . . But there’s nobody walking around here with a wife-beater T-shirt.”
Hadian is astonished at how little distributors put into merchandising.
“I was in one distributor near my home, picking up a case, and the guy raises two fingers. ‘Two fingers, what’s that for?’ I ask him. He says, ‘One dollar extra for cold, one dollar for after dark.’
“You’ve got to be kidding me. What kind of way is that to do business?”
Goldstein acknowledges merchandising is a problem in his industry.
“The whole culture of the beer distributor has been held back because we are in the neolithic era . . . I blame it on the state laws.”
He has a point: The beer regs were largely written in the 1930s, and they haven’t changed much since. Just the other day, Goldstein says, he stumbled across an 1899 state law, still on the books, that requires beer distributors to print their name and license number on the side of their horse-drawn delivery wagons.
Meanwhile, the LCB – which is essentially a government entity competing against private business – has stepped into the 21st century, big-time. Knowledgeable clerks, wider selection, Sunday hours, better prices – it’s no wonder customers are giving up their Bud.
Beer distributors can’t blame everything on outdated laws.
This is a business populated by mom-and-pop dealers who have historically earned a decent income just by piling cases on the floor. Now that sales are falling, it’s time to adapt.
Matt Guyer, owner of the Beer Yard in Wayne, says, “You can’t expect distributors to spend millions to fix up their buildings. Most of us lease.”
But he quickly adds, “There are plenty of other ways to grab customers . . .
“For example, we don’t have a TV in our office because I want my guys to be reading up on beer and helping our customers instead. When people come through the door, they know they’ll be welcomed.”
The Beer Yard offers regular tastings for customers to expose them to different brands, and it manages one of the most extensive beer-related Web sites on the Internet.
Guyer, like most distributors, wants Pennsylvania to change its dumb beer laws, and so do I. But even if distributors could sell 12-packs, that’s no guarantee that customers will return.
In the meantime, stop swearing at Harrisburg and grab a broom.
A sixpack of sales advice
It’s not brain surgery. It’s simple merchandising.
- Weekly tastings. Want your customers to lay out 60 bucks for an obscure Belgian ale? Crack open a bottle and give them a sample. (And, yes, this is legal.)
- Home delivery. A case weighs 18 pounds. You’ve got a truck. Get off your butt and deliver the damn thing. Today!
- Visible pricing. You don’t have to sticker every case, but at least give your customers a hint.
- Descriptions. Most of your customers don’t know the difference between a pale ale and a weizenbock. Download product descriptions from the Internet and post them next to the cases.
- Advertise. OK, coming from a newspaper, this is self-serving. But if you want to move that pallet of Czech pils before it goes stale, tell your customers while it’s still fresh.
- Clean the floors. You’re selling food, not lawnmowers.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Saranac Hefeweizen.