Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Open For Business?

Recently an issue has emerged on the local scene that’s generated a lot of attention. Despite the fact that it combines two of my interests-politics and beer-I’m frankly perplexed by the amount of passion swirling around it. I speak of proposals to change Minnesota’s existing laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol in stores on Sundays. The fact that you can imbibe all you want at your local watering hole, but aren’t allowed to pick up a six-pack at your local liquor store on a Sunday has some folks up in arms over the perceived injustice of it all.

To a certain extent, I’m sympathetic to these views. Minnesota’s laws regulating alcohol-mostly enacted after the repeal of Prohibition-do need to be reformed. It’s been a slow process with incremental steps, like the passage of “Surly bill” which allowed brewers to open tap rooms, being taken one at a time. This can be frustrating and I understand why people would like to have it move faster. I think it would be ideal if the legislature would just open up all the existing regulations on alcohol for a one-time all-encompassing overhaul. But that seems unlikely which means we’re going to have to continue to address these matters on a one off basis.

And I can appreciate the free market and local control arguments for Sunday opening. Why not let local communities decide if they want to allow liquor stores to be open on Sundays and then allow the individual businesses to decide if they want to open their doors or not? From a strictly libertarian perspective, it’s a difficult to argue against such an approach.

However, I also find many of the arguments for Sunday openings to be specious and in some cases even absurd. In the former category are claims that not being able to sell growlers on Sunday is hurting Minnesota’s craft brewers or that Minnesota is losing out on untold millions of dollars of sales tax from people who cross the border into Wisconsin to procure alcohol on Sundays. I think the impact of both claims are vastly overstated and have yet to see any solid evidence to support either. In the latter absurd category are the claims of victimhood embraced by some pro-Sunday opening folks who act as if their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are being violated by not being able to buy alcohol in Minnesota on a Sunday. My favorite in that category was this tweet:

Yes, that cry of distress was indeed uttered on March 3rd. This means that this gentleman only had TWELVE DAYS to buy whatever beer he might need to properly honor St. Patrick in Minnesota. I’m all for convenience and all that, but arguments such as this do not advance the Sunday opening cause.

The debate has also seemed very one sided from my perspective. I’ve heard a lot of arguments from those in favor of Sunday opening while rarely coming across any against. Part of this is likely a fear among liquor store owners that they will get tagged as being anti-consumer or selfish for not wanting to change the prohibition on Sunday alcohol sales. That concern is understandable and no business wants to be too involved in an issue that could potentially alienate a portion of their customers.

However, if the people of Minnesota-through their elected representatives-are going to change the regulations on Sunday opening, they should hear both sides of the issue and understand that while it might seem like a relatively clear cut choice there are implications and impacts that might not be easily foreseen.

The following is an argument against Sunday opening from a small business owner who wishes to remain anonymous:

I am not in favor of an abundance of government regulation. That said, I am strongly (as is virtually everyone I know in the business) against Sunday opening.

Since our store has been in business for forty-five years, we have a good perspective and records to lead us to believe Sunday opening would hurt small business. For many years we had to close our business, by law, at 8pm every night of the week. When the law changed to enable 10pm opening on Friday and Saturday nights, we tracked customer count and gross sales (with years and years of history). It turned out with four extra hours of business each week the customer count and gross sales remained virtually identical, but our payroll, utilities, insurance, and taxes increased, thereby reducing our profit. The Sam's Clubs, Costco’s, Cub Foods, Byerly's are already open and would not have to endure all the additional costs that small family owned wine and beer shops would. It should be noted that putting the family owned stores - who pay decent wages - out of business and replacing those stores with giant corporate chains that pay minimum wage or close to it may not be the best for our economy.

Another argument for protecting the small Minnesota busines...Our store is visited by an incredible amount of vineyard owners and specialty beer folk. The reasons these businesses like Minnesota so well is that we are not a grocery or big chain store state. Most consumers do not realize that they get a fantastic selection and variety in Minnesota. It should be noted that if the small shops are pushed aside your selection and service will suffer. Check out the stores in the Dakotas or Iowa. Looking for that awesome Napa Cabernet or the newest trendy IPA? Good luck! Grocery and jumbo chains are primarily interested in the top 100 SKUs.

One more thought, I have heard the argument that Sunday opening would increase the state's tax revenue. Even if I am wrong and there would be an increase in sales with the extra day, has anyone considered what might be hurt????? If you can get a bottle of wine from me on Sunday for $5 you may not visit your local restaurant where you would pay $15, therefore tripling the state's tax intake and tipping a restaurant employee that will be paying the state tax.

Food for thought.

In my view, that perspective has been mostly missing from the debate up to this point. It now looks increasingly unlikely that a bill to change Sunday opening will be considered during the current legislative session. However, it almost surely will in the future and when it does people should be exposed to the best arguments from both sides.

UPDATE: I probably did not make my views on the matter clear. As I mentioned, from a strictly libertarian viewpoint Sunday opening would be a slam dunk to support. However, I'm a conservative not a libertarian and I take a conservative viewpoint on the matter: why change unless there are compelling reasons to? If liquor stores were already allowed to open on Sundays and people wanted to close them, I'd be against it. But since the current state is that they're closed and the arguments for the damage that clsoing causes or the benefits to being open on Sundays aren't all that strong, I don't see why we should change the laws.

I also think that as conservatives we can't simply embrace free markets as the answer to everything. In Europe (at least in the smaller cities and towns in the Netherlands and Germany), stores usually close at 6pm on weekdays and are almost never open on Sundays. They don't do it for religious reason(at least not anymore) but because it benefits families and small businesses. And those are ends that all true conservatives should be able to support.