Liquor in grocery stores would likely doom smaller local shops, Norman owners say

·3 min read

Sep. 4—Walmart says consumers want liquor in its Oklahoma stores, and though Norman package shops say they're highly concerned about market share, they remain hopeful that their industry knowledge and specialty spirit selection would keep them afloat if the retailer got its way.

The world's largest retailer will initiate a lobby campaign in coordination with CMA Strategies, an Oklahoma-based campaign consulting and advocacy firm, this month, according to the Journal Record. The Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma told the publication that efforts will commence in September with a summit involving alcohol wholesalers and lobbyists, but liquor store owners were not invited.

Oklahoma voters passed SQ 792 in November 2016, co-authored by then-state Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, and former Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell wine and full-strength beer. The state question went into effect October 2018.

Walmart was the majority contributor to "Yes on 792 Inc." with a donation of nearly $4.9 million, according to Ballotpedia.

Opponents of the measure argued it's only a matter of time before the push for liquor in grocery and convenience stores begins, rendering the market to be dominated by large corporations.

Walmart said in a statement Thursday that after hearing from customers looking for added convenience, they have since initiated efforts to accommodate.

"Our customers have told us they want more choice and convenience when shopping for spirits in Oklahoma and we're interested in seeing what role we might be able to play in advocating for them on this issue," said Lauren Willis, Walmart's global communications director for the western United States.

Norman liquor store owners say when SQ 792 went into effect, the closure of mom and pop shops followed.

From 2015 to 2017, the state averaged 683 active liquor licenses. In 2018 and 2019 licenses dropped to 649 and 617, respectively, according to the Alcohol Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission.

Shop owners anticipate a steeper decline in numbers if Oklahoma voters were to pass legislation allowing liquor in grocery stores.

Matt Sterr, owner of The Spirit Shop, 109 S. Berry Rd., predicts a difficult future for many liquor store owners.

"I would posit that most liquor stores wouldn't survive," Sterr said.

The Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma said in a Facebook post they intend to lobby against Walmarts efforts, but support from store owners and trade partners will be necessary.

"They're opposed to it, but Walmart has 30 lobbyists to our one, so they laid the groundwork for this in 2016," Sterr said. "The endgame was always to get liquor into Walmart."

While some point to loosening of marijuana laws in the state as a similar progression, Sterr said it's a similiar slippery slope, but inverted.

"The marijuana thing was kind of a grassroots effort, whereas this is a top down one, basically writing a corporation a law that will allow them to dominate the market," Sterr said.

Sterr said all he and his employees can do is continue their focus on providing selection and service through product knowledge and offerings like delivery.

Kathy Hallren, owner of Joe's Wine and Spirits, 1330 E. Alameda St., said COVID relief money likely helped some store owners survive, but if legislation were to further loosen laws, the state would see a decline in liquor stores by more than 30%.

Hallren said in the 18 states that allow liquor sales at grocery retailers, most only carry the top brands. Like Sterr, she said a draw for smaller stores is the willingness to carry more options and even collectable whiskies, though declines in sales of popular liquor brands like Smirnoff, Seagrams and Jack Daniels would be a significant hit to revenue.

Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at jelkins@normantranscript.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.