Pa. caps off a very strange year in alcohol sales

By: - January 3, 2021 7:29 am

A Fine Wine & Good Spirits state store in Harrisburg. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

What happens when a state with a monopoly on alcohol sales moves, in one fell swoop, to close all of its retail locations for weeks on end during a pandemic?

Not much when it comes to the bottom line, annual data from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board show – though your sales graphs might look a bit erratic.

Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board saw a 9 percent jump in net income in the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, owing largely to reduced operating costs during a year of start-and-stop sales, the agency said in its annual report last month.

That’s despite a 7 percent decline in overall retail sales from the previous year – the result of a weeks-long shutdown of state-owned liquor stores starting in March, part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s public health orders to help the state contain the coronavirus. 

The abrupt shutdown of the state’s 584 Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores did lead to some highly irregular sales trends in the 2020 calendar year, data provided to the Capital-Star show. The agency logged three of its highest sales days of the year in March, when Wolf gave consumers a day’s notice that state-owned wine and spirits shops would close.  

The retailers raked in a total of $26.5 million in retail sales on March 16, the day Wolf announced the shutdown. That’s more than five times the average day in 2020, and a 249 percent increase from the same day in 2019. 

Wolf’s orders didn’t close grocery stores, which are licensed to sell wine and beer, or beer distributors. But they did cut Pennsylvanians off from most hard liquor sales for roughly eight weeks. 

State data show that retail sales basically zeroed out for two weeks after the shutdown began. They started to ramp up again when the state resumed e-commerce sales on April 1, and once more state lawmakers legalized curbside pick-up at the state-owned stores later that month. 

Liquor stores statewide began a gradual reopening in early May, and retail sales returned to pre-pandemic levels over the summer.

Daily sales spiked on weekends and before major holidays, as is typical. But they also shot up on Dec. 11 – the day after Wolf announced that a temporary shutdown of restaurants, sports and entertainment venues would take effect as the state battled a wintertime COVID-19 surge. 

Some things never change

A survey of county-level wine and spirits sales shows that retail trends were largely consistent with last year. 

Once again, the best-selling alcohol product in Pennsylvania was Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which also ranked as the top liquor of choice in 40 counties.

Regional trends also held strong. Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum proved wildly popular in the rugged lands of Northern Pennsylvania in 2020, even though Tito’s kicked it from its 2019 mantle as the best-seller in Crawford, Armstrong and Huntingdon counties. 

Just like last year, Hennessy Cognac reigned supreme in metro areas. And, for reasons that prove inscrutable, consumers in Greene County held tight to their Canadian whisky.

The big picture

Pennsylvania may have trafficked a lower volume of alcohol this year than it did last. But addiction treatment professionals predicted as early as this spring that the stress and isolation of the pandemic would fuel higher drug and alcohol consumption. 

Those fears appear to have been well-founded. The head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs told lawmakers earlier this month that some counties have seen upticks in substance-related deaths and overdoses. 

People trying to stay sober also say they felt derailed when support groups were forced to go online.

Officials have tried to publicize Pennsylvania’s mental health resources ahead of the holiday season. They include the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs’s Get Help Now helpline at 1-800-662-HELP, as well as its anonymous chat service for those who prefer not to communicate over the phone. 

“The most important thing for people to know is that there is hope through the help that is available for Pennsylvanians struggling with substance use disorder,” DDAP Secretary Jennifer Smith said in a December statement. “If people are deciding whether to take that first, brave step, there is absolutely no shame in seeking help to lead a happy, healthy life.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.

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