While grocers thrive, package stores wither under new Sunday sales law

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Owner Alan Wilensky bags a purchase Saturday for customer David Chiasson of Niantic at Max's Package Store in East Lyme. Wilensky has decided to close his store on Sundays until the tourist season begins Memorial Day weekend.

East Lyme - Having seen no increase in sales since the state allowed alcohol to be sold on Sundays, Max's Package Store owner Alan Wilensky has decided to go back to a six-day-a-week schedule until Memorial Day.

Several liquor stores in the area, including Carmine's Package Store in Niantic, also have stopped opening on Sundays, and others have cut or are considering scaling back hours.

"All it's doing is just shifting business," said Paul Agronovitch, owner of Universal Package Store in Norwich, who is contemplating cutting back his Sunday hours. "We're doing six days' business in seven days."

While package stores are scaling back on Sundays, supermarkets are seeing a major increase in Sunday beer shopping. Connecticut Food Association executive director Stan Sorkin said stores are reporting average month-over-month increases of 8 percent in beer sales since the state did away with its Sunday alcohol sales prohibition, and that doesn't include boosts in associated items, such as chips, dips and cold cuts.

Sorkin added that grocery-store beer sales near Connecticut's borders with New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are up closer to 20 percent.

"Consumers have responded well to our stores," Sorkin said. "We've kept a lot more money in the State of Connecticut."

Exactly how much money is hard to discern, although projections last year by the governor's office that had state revenues increasing between $6.4 million and $11.2 million related to Sunday sales appear to have been very optimistic.

After nine months of Sunday sales, collections from the state's alcoholic beverage tax are running nearly $2.2 million above last year's level, an increase of less than 5 percent, according to figures provided by the state Office of Policy and Management.

It's unclear how much of the increased revenues are related to higher prices and how much are tied to increased consumption, but the number of gallons of beer sold during the period is up only about 3 percent, while similar figures for wine show a bit more than a 2 percent bump.

But any extra consumption of alcohol is not translating into extra sales at package stores in the region, according to most owners.

Sue Kumro, owner of Mermaid Liquors in Niantic, said she has cut hours on Sunday because of a lack of business. She has maintained Sunday hours only as a convenience to customers.

"If they're having a party (on Sunday), they just wait till Sunday (to buy alcohol)," she said.

As others cut weekend hours, some package store owners who never bought into the Sunday-sales competition are glad they resisted the temptation to open seven days a week.

Tim Santos, owner of Cove Ledge Package Store in Stonington, said he never had enough foot traffic at his location on Route 1 to warrant adding a Sunday shift.

"I'm just in a real boating area," Santos said. "On Sundays around here, boaters stay out most of the day."

While most liquor store owners cite disappointing Sunday sales numbers, Mike Edgerton, co-owner of Universal Package Store in Noank, said his tiny village shop had a strong year.

"Our store is in a tourist destination," Edgerton said. "During the summer, Sundays is extra business. ... In the winter, it's more of an obligation."

Wilensky at Max's Package Store said he's opened on Sundays initially because of a "fear factor" that if he didn't, he would lose out to the competition. He now plans to open Sundays only during the tourist season, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

His last Sunday sale was on the day of the Super Bowl, but he said even football playoff games didn't add any sizzle to his business. The only two Sundays he did particularly well, he added, were just before Christmas and a few days ahead of Hurricane Sandy.

Wilensky added that beer sales have been relatively flat compared with the increases seen for other alcoholic beverages. This is an indication, he said, that grocery store beer sales are cutting into business.

"There's been no increase in sales at all (related to staying open Sunday)," Wilensky said. "It's been split off between Saturday and Monday."

At the same time, costs have increased because of higher electrical bills and extra pay for staff, as well as associated payments for workers' compensation, unemployment and matching taxes, he said.

Wilensky, who is former president of the Connecticut Package Store Association and serves as its legislative chairman, said he has no hope of rescinding Sunday sales now or in the future.

"It's hard to put the genie back in the bottle," he said.

But he does hope the association will be able to fight off another proposal this legislative session that would allow liquor store owners to sell products below cost.

Other store owners said the proposal isn't as threatening as the bill last year that would have eliminated a requirement that Connecticut alcohol distributors offer products at the same price to all their customers, a move that could force mom-and-pop businesses to buy larger quantities of products and therefore have fewer varieties of wine and beer in their stores.

But, while Edgerton of Universal Package Store said the current proposal is less daunting than the package of changes Gov. Dannel P. Malloy offered last year and then amended, it's another small step backwards for independent retailers.

"It's a death by 1,000 cuts," he said.

Smaller stores in other states that have eliminated minimum pricing, allowed expanded chain ownership and done away with price controls - all proposals during last year's legislative session - have slowly withered away, package store owners said.

"Connecticut is one of the last bastions of independent retailers," Wilensky added.

As for Sorkin, who represents the state's supermarkets, he would like to see longer hours for beer sales on Sundays, expanding the current time frame of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. by at least an hour or two on either side.

"When there's competition, consumers win," Sorkin said. "We're for the free market."

l.howard@theday.com

Connecticut Alcoholic Beverage Tax Collections*
 2012 2011
May5,535,0623,824,766
June 6,325,883 6,685,024
July 4,644,969 4,300,965
August 5,094,114 4,737,067

September

4,244,733 4,694,920
October 5,942,253 5,703,540
November 6,021,140 5,604,431

December

5,964,971 4,576,157
January 5,041,775 6,518,892
TOTAL 48,816,912 46,647,773
*Calculated from monthly gallons
SOURCE: Connecticut Office of Policy and Management

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