Standing Up: A Personal Journey To The Legal Cannabis Industry

Standing Up: A Personal Journey To The Legal Cannabis Industry

I never imagined I’d be writing about this topic. For 25 years, I’ve enjoyed an amazing journey as a serial entrepreneur building companies and brands, leading companies in the beer, wine and spirits, distribution, and technology industries. The alcohol industry has been good to me and to my family.

Other than a little exposure in college, I have not been around marijuana. A few years ago, I met a bunch of U.S. Marines. Travis McVey created Heroes Vodka and I helped him launch the brand. His friend Stephen told me a story that has stayed with me. Stephen Cochran served as part of the 2nd (LAR) Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was severely injured on patrol. Stephen spent nearly a year in hospitals paralyzed, unable to a walk. After undergoing an experimental procedure at Vanderbilt, he was miraculously able to walk again. Stephen said,

“In recovery, I suffered from extreme pain and Doctors prescribed me every prescription medicine you could imagine. The pain meds nearly killed me. That is when I turned to cannabis. Today I’m raising my family, writing, and performing music. I give back to veterans wherever and whenever I can ( Semper Fi Fund). Medical cannabis is the reason I can do these things today. It saved my life and the lives of many of my fellow veterans.”

This conversation opened my eyes to the many benefits of cannabis. There are more than 50 medical conditions for which cannabis is legally recognized as some form of therapy or medicine including Alzheimer’s, anorexia, arthritis, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve come across people suffering with chronic pain and others going through cancer treatment. Cannabis allows them to live their lives without the destructive side effects of opioid based pain medicines. The more I learned about the benefits of cannabis to people suffering, the more research I did to understand the industry. Based on this, I’ve come to believe that its place in society needs to change.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Al Harrington (L) and Viola Harrington arrive at exNBA Star Al Harrington Launches New CBD Business at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on February 15, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)

Al Harrington is a 16-year NBA great and cannabis entrepreneur. I used to watch Al at Pacer’s games. Al found his way into medicinal cannabis and CBD to treat his pain from a botched knee surgery. He tells a funny story about recommending medical marijuana to his grandmother Viola. She suffered from multiple ailments, and after some initial resistance, she tried it and immediately felt better. His cannabis brand, Viola, was soon born. He also has his Harrington Wellness line of CBD. Al’s story is genuine. In an interview with Al, former NBA commissioner David Stern pronounced that the laws and rules need to change around cannabis (See Al Harrington and David Stern). Al, and my friend, musician, and NFL great Kyle Turley, have been outspoken advocates for awareness and change. It’s clear, cannabis prohibition and the aggressive pursuit of its enforcement have also particularly ravaged the African American community.

The opioid epidemic is destroying lives, families, and devastating whole communities. I personally have more than one friend who has lost a (grown) child recently, due to accidental overdose or tainted product. We must do something to stop this epidemic. Doctors overprescribing opioids is one of the primary causes. Many patients start out with legal prescriptions and become addicted. They then turn to the illegal market to meet their addiction needs. Cannabis can be used to help wean people off these destructive drugs. Ideally, it could be prescribed to avoid opioid abuse in the first place. It is a legitimate part of the solution. Given this, I decided to find out how I could make a difference.

I attended the MJ Business conference in Las Vegas and networked with Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and other friends. I wanted to figure out how I could play a positive role in this emerging industry. I did some research to understand what led to the abrupt prohibition of cannabis in the US in 1937. I learned that Indianapolis pharmaceutical powerhouse, Eli Lilly was in the cannabis business until the prohibition. Cannabis prohibition seems to have been motivated by a combination of racism and the business interests of a few that had political influence (Why Is Marijuana Illegal). I learned that many feel the ratcheting up of cannabis to a Schedule I drug (the same as Heroin) in 1970 also had racist motivations. It was certainly not based on science.

The American public now overwhelmingly supports cannabis legalization, with over 64% in favor according to Gallop. It is more popular than any current politician. State by state, citizens have made local option the law of the land. There are now 30 states plus Washington DC where medical cannabis use is legal. There are 9 states where adult recreational use is now legal. This is a prime example of the importance of state’s rights leading the way.

As the industry has come out of the shadows of illegal activity and into the light of permitted activities in many states, incredible entrepreneurial spirits have been unleashed. I feel the excitement of being at the forefront of another Repeal of Prohibition. This time though, we have the added dimension of extraordinary medical benefits. Drawing from my 25+ years in the beverage alcohol business, I see many parallels to the industry I know well. The legal framework around local option, licensing and taxes are similar to alcohol beverage laws in many respects. Constellation Brands [STZ] recent $191 million investment into Canopy Growth [WEED] further convinced me that this developing industry is going mainstream.

Legal cannabis is likely to rival the Beer, Wine and Spirits categories and exceed $50 billion annually in the coming years. Some analysts predict the US industry over $100 billion. Regardless of the number, it is and will be massive.

I met my partners Todd Kaplan and Courtney Dorne through YPO last year. I joined the team at Vertical Companies as a partner, President of Distribution and Chief Marketing Officer in January 2018. I could not be more excited in this venture, building a large scale new enterprise in the emerging cannabis space. One of my objectives will be to play my part in bringing the right coalitions together to address and correct the State vs Federal conflict that exists today.

COURTNEY DORNE AND J SMOKE WALLIN JOIN VERTICAL COMPANIES EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP TEAM

COURTNEY DORNE AND J SMOKE WALLIN JOIN VERTICAL COMPANIES EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP TEAM

VERTICAL EXPANDS EXECUTIVE TEAM; CEMENTS LEADERSHIP IN LEGAL CANNABIS INDUSTRY

Courtney Dorne, J. Smoke Wallin bring significant executive experience in Food and Alcohol Beverages to one of country’s leading medical cannabis companies

Los Angeles, CA (January 25, 2018) – Vertical, one of the country’s leading vertically integrated medical cannabis companies, announced today the addition of Courtney Dorne and J. Smoke Wallin to their leadership team.  Dorne is an entrepreneur and food industry leader who joins Vertical as a partner and President of Vertical Brands Co.  Wallin is a serial entrepreneur and thought leader in the beverage alcohol industry and has joined as a partner, Chief Marketing Officer and President of Vertical Distribution Co.

Vertical was founded in 2014 by entrepreneurs who saw the potential created by the transition of cannabis to a legitimate and legal business. Drawing from results-driven expertise in a variety of industries, the Vertical team has a synergistic energy that offers proven experience from seed to sale.

“I’m thrilled to welcome Courtney and Smoke to our executive team,” said Todd Kaplan, Founder & CEO of Vertical.  “Smoke’s deep knowledge of alcohol distribution and scaling new businesses in highly regulated industries, combined with Courtney’s perishable food distribution and extensive network strengthen our competitive advantage in the rapidly evolving legal medical cannabis industry.”

According to The Arcview Group, the U.S. legal cannabis industry represented over $6.7 billion 2016 and is expected to grow to between $22 and $50 billion over the next 10 years. Legalization of the medical cannabis industry began in 1996 with California’s passage of the Compassionate Use Act.  Since then it has operated in a quasi-legal environment with conflicting laws throughout the land, while growing exponentially.  2014 marked the beginning of adult recreational cannabis legalization with Colorado and Washington leading the way.  Today there are 29 states that have legalized either medical only or medical and adult recreational cannabis production, distribution, retail and consumption.  Gallop recently reported 64 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization nationally. In this vibrant space, Vertical is a pioneer and is the first to offer fully integrated services from legal compliance and operation of cultivation to extraction, product development and marketing.

Dorne brings literally a lifetime of experience in food services and the restaurant industry to Vertical. From her family’s restaurant to founding the giant Fresh and Ready Foods, Dorne has a proven track record in food manufacturing and perishable packaged food distribution and has built an extensive network of customers ranging from airlines and hospitals to convention centers, the military and convenience stores, all the while working under the rigorous scrutiny of FDA and USDA regulations.  She is a member of the YPO Global One chapter and is the current Chair of the Women’s Network (WYN).

“After years of suffering from debilitating pain and crippling migraines as a result of extensive surgical procedures, I learned first hand about the efficacy of cannabis on pain management,” said Dorne. “All too often our culture is quick to treat pain with a pill and we’ve all seen what that has gotten us. I believe that legal cannabis can be a part of a legal, safer and healthier alternative and I’m thrilled to join the team that can help make this happen.”

Wallin comes to Vertical by way of Taliera, a company he founded in 2005 to create, acquire, manage and advise brands in the beverage space. His career in beverage alcohol has included serving as Chairman & President of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) and EVP and CFO for National Wine & Spirits (now part of RNDC/Breakthru). He is also active in YPO as Chair of the Beer, Wine and Spirits Network and has been active in legislative and regulatory affairs.

“I have always loved innovating, doing deals and building enterprises to scale, particularly in the beverage alcohol space,” Wallin said.  “I’ve been studying high potential growth brands and companies, and Vertical and is at the forefront of the rapidly growing legal medical cannabis industry. Both industries are highly regulated and for some time I have been expecting them to converge. The recent investment by Constellation Brands[STZ] in Canada’s Canopy Growth [WEED] validated my premise, and I couldn’t be more excited to be part of the team building brands and distribution in a market worth $100s of billions globally.”

Wallin continued, “I can’t help but think of Sam Bronfman in 1933 at the Repeal of Prohibition who went on to build Seagram into the alcohol industry leader it became before selling to Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Vertical is positioned to achieve that level of success.”

About Verticalâ„¢

Vertical is one of the first and largest vertically integrated companies in the legal medical cannabis industry. It’s operations in CA, AZ and OR combined with strategic partnerships in CO, MI, and NV position it well to take advantage of the rapid legalization and normalization of cannabis globally. Vertical is led by an executive team of entrepreneurs and business leaders from the alcohol beverage, agriculture, CPG, distribution, entertainment, food and medical industries. Vertical’s operations include planning, permitting, development and operation of cultivation, extraction, manufacturing, distribution and retail facilities.  It has world class capabilities in product development, co-packing, branding, marketing, education, and legal compliance, Vertical does Everything Pertaining to Green. For more information visit www.vertcos.com.

Wine and Tech Innovators Gathering this week in Napa

Wine and Tech Innovators Gathering this week in Napa

Wine and Tech Innovators Gathering this week in Napa

11th Annual Wine Industry Technology Symposium

Developed for Wine Business Leaders, Marketers, Innovators

 WITS collage 2015

(NAPA, Calif.) – Technology leaders in both marketing and wine including Brad Rosen of DRYNC, Joe Rosenberg of Google, Paul Mabray of VinTank a W20 Company, Michael Pavone of quench, Brian Rosen of Rosen Retail for Adult Beverage, Josh Saunders of Uncorkd and Max Kalehoff of Social Code are set to engage and inspire attendees with the latest information and ideas this week at the 11th Annual Wine Industry Technology Symposium (WITS) set for June 25-26, 2015 at the Napa Valley Marriott in Napa, California.

Brad Rosen, CEO of DRYNC shared, “The biggest game changer is consumer expectation. The convenience of mobile technology in particular has set a new bar – MAGIC. If your experience is not magical, it is essentially useless in the eyes of the consumer. Immediate access to products at a competitive price and personalized service are table stakes. Consumers have no tolerance for the mediocre, little patience, and high expectations for special treatment. Like never before, you need to know each individual customer and cater to their needs… now.”

“While the information shared at WITS is the foundation of the program, the incredible tech-related experts from both inside and outside the wine business drive the event, ignite the sharing of ideas and really fire up the pace! This year we have a rich, multi-layered program of inspirational keynote presentations and idea-sparking round table discussions with experts on the first day, as well as the more in-depth breakout sessions on day number two,” said Lesley Berglund, co-chairman of WITS and co-founder and chairman of the Wine Industry Sales Education (WISE) Academy.

Paul Mabray of VinTank, A W20 Company said, “Technology and the ‘internet of things’ allows us to bypass traditional market research, which many times becomes stale by the time it’s complete, and opens up opportunities around location-based marketing, identifying influencers and our customer’s interests. Now we can learn in real time who our target audience is, what they’re talking about and interested in online, and actually pivot in the middle of campaigns, if necessary. We’re able to reach our ‘true market’ instead of guessing about a broader audience.”

“The Wine Industry Technology Symposium has always kept pace with the rapidly evolving technology of the day. It’s transformational as we produce this event year after year, to reveal the hottest trends emerging at the crossroads of wine and technology from marketing and consumer interaction to wine production and vineyard management,” said J. Smoke Wallin, founder and co-chairman of WITS.

To really use hand-on technology to take things to the next level, “Multi-rotor small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAVs), commonly known as drones, provide the opportunity for exceptional high-definition aerial still photography and videography. The resulting imagery can be used by winery owners in developing marketing campaigns, while vineyard owners find aerial imagery useful in identifying problem spots and leveraging the additional perspective for general vineyard maintenance,” shared Jim Brammer of Soaring Vistas Media.

Registration is now open, attendees can view the entire two-day program and register at www.wineindustrytechnologysymposium.com.

About WITS:

The Wine Industry Technology Symposium® (WITS) is the focal point for thought leadership in the strategic and tactical use of technology in the global wine industry. WITS was created in 2005 by a group of wine industry and technology professionals to advance innovation and to address the unique information technology and service needs of the wine industry. The 11th annual WITS will be held June 25 – 26, 2015 in Napa, California. To learn more, join WITS on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

For more information, go to www.WineIndustryTechnologySymposium.com or contact Waunice Orchid of the Wine Industry Symposium Group at 707-666-2525 or waunice@winesymposium.com.

 

Here is a selection of wineries attending #WITS2015 … Don’t miss out!

Benziger Family Winery,

Mondavi and Family,

Cakebread Cellars,

Caymus Vineyards,

Chateau Montelena Winery,

Clos Du Val Winery,

Constellation Brands,

Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant,

Dawns Dream Winery,

Delicato Family Vineyards,

Domaine Carneros,

Duckhorn Vineyards,

eProvenance,

Folio Fine Wine Partners,

Francis Ford Coppola Presents,

Grgich Hill Estates,

Gundlach Bundschu,

J.Lohr Vineyards & Wines,

Jackson Family Wines,

Jamieson Ranch Vineyards,

Kistler Vineyards,

Le Mulet Rouge Vineyards,

Martin Ray Winery,

Mendocino Wine Company,

Opus One Winery,

Pahlmeyer,

Precept Wine,

Ridge Wine,

Robert Young Estate Winery,

Rodney Strong Vineyards,

Scheid Vineyards,

Signorello Estate,

The Hess Collection,

The Other Guys,

Treasury Wine Estates,

Tres Sabores Winery,

Trinchero Family Estates,

USA & Yalumba Wine Company,

Vintage Wine Estates,

Wente Family Estates

Evolving Drinks Brands

Evolving Drinks Brands

Evolving Drinks Brands banner

I recently read and shared an article in Forbes by Patrick Hanlon called, “Why Brands Must Evolve” that is so spot on that it has led to a number of interesting conversations in the past week with some of my clients and partners who own brands in beer, wine and spirits. As one who spends a lot of time thinking about new brands, as well as igniting established brands in new ways, Patrick’s thoughts really resonated with me. I don’t think there is a better industry than beverage to illustrate his points about what is going on with brands. Brand proliferation is happening across the board making “breaking through the clutter” ever more difficult. At the same time, the reason this is happening if fundamentally that there is demand for new brands. As I wrote in “RE: Is Craft Beer In A Bubble”, there is a big and growing market for new brands in beer, but also in wine and spirits. Not everyone will succeed and in fact many new brands will fail. To the big brand manager, the fundamental challenge has also never been so big – how do you keep a loyal following when your following gets gigantic. I think about an Iconic brand like Patron Tequila. I was a distributor for Patron as it passed between different sales companies and was a very difficult sell. Five years from the time it launched, Patron was doing about 55,000 cases. Now that is a nice little brand, but nothing would have screamed, “This brand is on fire!” Then, it did catch on fire and became the very symbol of luxury. Check out Patron case sales for the first 10 years:

Patron sales first 10 years

Patron is an amazing brand and continues to outsell all of the other super premium tequilas (and frankly all other spirits brands at $40/750ml bottle and higher). They have a huge and loyal following. However, as brand manager for Patron today, the things one has to do to market the brand are quite different than in the early years. How does one keep the “cool” factor going when you are the largest brand in your category. There are dozens of new entrants who are going after their market and have the advantage of being smaller (think Avion, Casamigos, Don Julio) and bringing a new “cool” factor to the market. Clearly there are many that succeed at this but being true to your brand and your audience while changing things up can be quite difficult. Absolut Vodka was THE luxury brand of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the “it” brand among the “it” crowd.

Andy Warhol Absolut IMG_6541

Pernod Ricard paid over $8 billion to acquire the brand a few years back. How does Pernod now manage a giant brand that was formerly the top luxury vodka in a market with such massive proliferation of brands that the high-end vodka category has experienced. I’m told there are 800 vodkas in the Beverage Media New York book. Pernod recently announced a new bottle. Absolut is one of those brands that defined itself by its bottle.   Changing the bottle is a big move even in subtle ways. Adding the big A is a pretty big move. Large companies don’t usually make big moves, but staying relevant in a crowded market sometimes requires big moves.    Pepsico made an even bigger move a few years back with their Gatorade brand. I thought at the time, it was fairly risky, but it appears to have paid off (does anyone know details?).

gatorade new gatorade old label

Patrick’s article certainly cites a number of great examples of big brands that have managed to evolve over time and keep or even build on their past successes. “…the challenge for brands has evolved from creating awareness to creating meaning.” How do you keep creating meaning at scale like Nike, Apple and Disney have successfully done.  They each connect to their consumers and continually create meaning.

The wine market has evolved so dramatically, that I have to look up many of the brands on the grocery shelf today and I have been involved in selling $100s of millions of wine over the years. Why? New brand proliferation to attract the millennial consumers.

barefoot wine logo Meiomi wine

Take a look at the top 10 domestic “Hot Brands” put out by Marvin Shanken’s Impact Databank:

  1. Barefoot
  2. Black Box
  3. Bota Box
  4. Liberty Creek
  5. Boggle
  6. Apothic
  7. 14 hands
  8. Barefoot Refresh
  9. Gnarly Head
  10. Meiomi

Four of these are Gallo Brands, but none say Gallo. All have interesting, contemporary labels. To succeed in this hyper-competitive market, every brand must have a number of things. Great branding is vital, without it your brand is lost and has no chance. Great liquid that fits the taste of your target market is key, without it they won’t buy a second time. Distribution is essential, a brand cannot become relevant if consumers can’t find it. But how does a brand build a real following of consumers who care? That is, how do we create meaning? That is the question every new brand team needs to answer.

 

To quote Patrick again: “We want the added value of believing in something. The added value of belonging to something: being a part of something that hard-wires us to a larger community of “people like me””

 

Seth Godin in his fantastic book “Tribes” articulates this concept well.

“Seth Godin argues the Internet has ended mass marketing and revived a human social unit from the distant past: tribes. Founded on shared ideas and values, tribes give ordinary people the power to lead and make big change. He urges us to do so.” Brands have to figure out how to reach their tribes and how to engage with them. Notice, I did not say create their tribes. This is an important distinction. I believe tribes are discovered not created. Brands who overtly try to create one typically struggle. If a following is not organic, today’s savvy consumers sense it.   I think brands can make themselves relevant and worthy of a following and then as that following begins to show signs of life can play a role in fostering and accelerating it.

 

I’d love to hear your stories of brands you think are doing this right.

 

Cheers,

 

Smoke

 

My Week of Leadership & Entrepreneurship @ Cornell and WSWA

My Week of Leadership & Entrepreneurship @ Cornell and WSWA

Celebration 15 logo

I’m really looking forward to next week’s Entrepreneurship @ Cornell University! The energy building up to this is incredible as I’ve begun to interact with my fellow speakers and attendees.

Right now I’m thinking about my topics and the most important take home value I can deliver to the students, entrepreneurs and attendees.

Before I get to Ithaca, I’m attending the 72nd Annual Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) convention in Orlando, FL.  Since I’m launching a new brand project, it will give me an opportunity to further discuss packaging, branding, sourcing and overall strategy with some of the brightest leaders in the industry.  Last year at WSWA I kicked off the pre-launch of Sugar Skull Rum.

This is a cool brand that unfortunately got stopped in its tracks by certain partners before we could get beyond kickoff in a few markets.  Time will tell where it ends up, but the early response was terrific!  There are lessons in this one I will certainly share at Cornell.

Finally, although I rooted for Wisconsin at the Final NCAA game last week, I am looking forward to hearing Mike Krzyzewski- better known as “Coach K“- head of the legendary Duke University Blue Devils basketball squad, address our group on Monday morning.  Not a Duke fan generally, but definitely hold Coach K in high regard and interested in his message on leadership and winning.

Here’s an outline of my upcoming Cornell visit:Tech Entrepreneurship Roundtable Prgm image

Tuesday/Wednesday – participate in and speak at the Pillsbury Institute’s

Technology Entrepreneurship Roundtable, Chaired by: Mona Anita Olsen, Ph.D. Assistant Academic Director of The Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship, Visiting Assistant Professor of Management & Organizational Behavior, Cornell University

Center for Hospitality Res - Cornell

Mona Anita Olsen

I’m looking forward to my session with  Cornell classmate Joe Tagliente, President, Lenrock and a fellow YPO’r.  Our panel is called “Brand Activation Through Social & Mobile Apps and Development of A Social Mobile Company” The full program is here.

It will be catching up with fraternity brother (Sigma Nu)  Zach Shulman, who I found out after committing to my visit is Director of Entrepreneurship @Cornell!  Very cool!

Thursday/Friday are jam packed with the Entrepreneurship @Cornell Celebration.

 

In this I’m joining more than 1,000 alumni, students, faculty, and staff for two days of on-campus events including:

  • Symposia on a wide range of topics including family business, social entrepreneurship, health administration and more!
  • eLab Demo Day
  • New Business & Emerging Technologies Showcase
  • BIG Idea Competition and Cornell Venture Challenge finals
  • Recognition of the Student Business of the Year
  • Networking opportunities …and more!

    Celebration 15 logo

I have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Olsen’s class called:

Technology for Bootstrapped Entrepreneurship

a topic with which I am intimately familiar!

Following class, I’m participating on a panel of distinguished entrepreneurs in what is dubbed a

Slice of Insight Social at Celebration ’15

The the rest of the day includes a keynote by Jay Walker (one of America’s best-known business inventors and entrepreneurs, has founded multiple successful startup companies that today serve more than 75 million customers in 15 different industries) and the banquet with special guest Svante Myrick ’09, Ithaca Mayor

On Friday I’m joining two other entrepreneurs in a celebration talk:

CEN talk Cornell panel

In between all this I’m visiting the Viticulture and Oenology department, with Prof. Gavin Sacks to learn about what Cornell is up to in the wine world and also to see what we can do to tie them into our 11th Annual Wine Industry Technology Symposium (WITS) in Napa in June.

Finally, I’m paying a visit to the Friedman Wrestling center and Coach Rob Koll,  4 X NCAA champion Kyle Dake and first time champion Gabe Dean…  and later meeting up with my old wrestling coach and Athletic Director, Andy Noel... this will entail its own post after we meet up!

I look forward to writing about my experiences and all the interaction with new and old friends!  Cheers!

 

 

 

Channel Conflict II: Grocery Alcohol Fights Across the Land

Channel Conflict II: Grocery Alcohol Fights Across the Land

Last week I wrote about Channel Conflict in the 3 tier system of alcohol distribution between wholesalers and Anheuser-Busch Inbev and the craft community. I received quite a few interesting comments from my friends on both sides of the issue.   One highly respected industry member commented to me “Very nice job trying to ride the third rail of these issues and explain a complex issue in simple terms.”

Well here goes again with an issue that I get asked about frequently. Another interesting channel conflict is between and among the members of the retail tier. This channel conflict involves questions regarding who (what types of retailers) can sell which types of beverage alcohol and when alcohol can be sold (e.g. Grocery Sales of beer spirits and wine and Sunday Sales). These questions are raging across the country in different states. The conflict pits independent liquor stores (and specialty chain liquor stores depending on the state) against the corporate chains (Costco, Kroger, Publix, Target, Walmart etc). An example of this is the Sunday sales of alcohol at retail in Indiana. After passing out of committee with a “poison pill change” Sunday sales was killed in the Indiana legislature. Sunday Alcohol Sales Meet Familiar Fate.

liquor store sign liquor sales sunday closed

In a closely related question pertaining to which type of retailer can sell which products, in 2014 Tennessee passed a law allowing grocery stores to sell not only beer, which they already could sell, but also wine. Wine in grocery stores passes; what’s next?

In Florida, Walmart and others are pushing legislation for the right to sell spirits within the same store as groceries and not be required to have a separate stand-alone entrance. Publix, another grocer, does not support the change since they already have stand-alone entrances throughout the state. Beer and wine are treated differently in Florida and groceries are able to sell inside a grocery store. Publix opposes, Walmart backs Florida bill to let grocers sell liquor.  Update – More Here: Florida: Spirited Battle Ahead over Florida’s Liquor Separation Law

3/23 Update: Beer bill on tap in Florida House on Tuesday

 

kroger store outside kroger wine shop walmart store shot outside

In some cases, these fights are spilling over into the courts and not just the legislatures. Walmart lawsuit highlights Texas’ surprising alcohol laws. In the case of Texas and Walmart’s litigation, it is about their right to sell products that the specialty retailers currently have a lock on and have created work-arounds for ownership of large-scale chains.  UPDATE:

Costco joins coalition to broaden liquor sales laws in Texas

The reality is there are so many new brands, it is hard to keep up with them all, for people in the industry, let alone consumers. This proliferation of new brands is driven by today’s consumer thirst for new things, literally. Generally speaking, I believe more open markets are better for consumers, but taken to extreme can cause massive consolidation and the independent specialty liquor shops and specialty chains find themselves at a significant disadvantage to the corporate chains. Markets like California and Arizona are examples of wide-open sales of beer, spirits and wine. This has been the case for a long time. In these markets the corporate chains dominate the retail landscape. The independent sector is a much smaller portion of the total business. The large specialty chains have also been very successful in these markets (Bevmo! and Total Wine & More).

Bevmo store shot Bevmo logo

 

The relative advantage of full line retailers (grocery) is what is driving the fights over Sunday  sales. Liquor stores are not open on Sundays, but the grocery chains are. The groceries of course want to be able to sell alcohol, as they are open, fully staffed and have consumers in their stores who would like to purchase it. The liquor stores would have to man their stores with staff and the thinking among many is the incremental sales on Sunday will simply come out of sales during the week they would get anyway. Their worse fear is that the groceries will end up with a greater share of the incremental business with so many consumers already shopping in their stores on Sunday.  The package stores won the recent Indiana fight by taking a quite reasonable position – that all retailers should be under the same sets of laws.  In the end, the groceries could not support losing the significant freedoms they currently have just to get Sunday sales.

Sunday-alcohol-sales-prohibitdotcom

To people (consumers) who live in both more “open” or “closed” states, these fights seem strange indeed.   There has been a long-term trend to more liberalization of alcohol laws on a state-by-state basis. But this liberalization has been gradual and certainly not continuous. As the large grocery/mass retailers have shifted their attention to gaining share of the increasingly important beverage alcohol market and Total Wine continuing their massive expansion around the country, the independent sector will continue to be under pressure and where organized, able to continue to slow the pace of change through state legislatures and regulations. That said, the most strategic of the independents and specialty chains are innovating and investing

in their ability to serve their customers and compete effectively with the other retail sectors. Walmart and most other full service retailers will never have the specialized staff that a focused specialty retailer of alcohol can have (There are exceptions on a store level, but this is true overall). This high level of knowledge and service with customers is what will keep consumers coming back. I think the bigger fear is a large specialty retailer (Total Wine) that has it all – scale ($1.5 million in alcohol sales) and low pricing, product depth (10,000 skus typically) and highly knowledgeable employees. They are very strong.

Total wine logo total wine store shot

The wholesalers and most of the suppliers all try to stay out of these arguments, since both sets of retailers are their customers. DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council Of The United States) though has a long-standing policy to fight against anything that disadvantages spirits to other types of alcohol. They have been quite effective on this front in many markets. The craft (beer, spirits and wine) producers definitely benefit from a thriving independent market as they get more opportunities for their smaller or new brands than in the corporate chains, but they also benefit by having a more open market with multiple channels for consumers to buy alcohol. It’s a tough balance to maintain with many competing interests, but in the end the market will drive it, albeit more slowly than many consumers want with the local legislation and regulations market by market.

I’d love to hear you thoughts on these issues and other examples in your state.

Cheers,
Smoke

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