The battle has been lost but not the war. So says Francois Guilloux, managing partner of There Performance Group of Little Rock, a liquor store industry consultancy.
He’s referring to Senate Bill 284, which expands the selection of wine big retailers like Wal-Mart and Kroger can sell in “wet” counties in Arkansas.
The bill cleared the Senate last week in a 18-14 vote and was headed to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his signature, despite predictions from liquor store owners that it will lead to the closure of hundreds of package stores in the state and will ultimately result in less choice for consumers.
The measure, filed by state Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, allows grocery stores to sell wines from any winery. Currently, grocery stores can sell wine only from “small-farm wineries,” those that don’t produce more than 250,000 gallons per year.
Hester told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he was confident Hutchinson would sign the bill.
“The one thing that came out from this is a much stronger unity across the state, and we’re not going to just sit back and come back to our old busy lives,” Guilloux told Whispers. “We’re actually going to go and fight. This is just the first battle that we have lost. We have certainly not lost the war.”
A number of liquor store owners in general and the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas in particular are considering measures that would help the industry make the playing field fairer, he said. Owners complain that SB284 changes the business landscape for package stores in Arkansas, which are heavily regulated by the state and are subject to a number of laws that grocery stores are not.
Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers, including Target, have been engaged recently in fierce political battles in Colorado and Florida in an effort to expand beyond beer and wine and sell spirits. Asked whether that was a possibility in Arkansas, Guilloux said, “The answer is not ‘if.’ It’s only a question of ‘when.’
“That is for sure,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. These big box retailers and the No. 1 leader, Wal-Mart, have made it pretty clear, if you look at their strategy across the United States — and I would even argue across the world — of trying to become the No. 1 leader in alcohol distribution.”
Wal-Mart had not responded to a Whispers request for comment as of press time.