Wine kiosks coming soon near you

Some may open in grocery stores in Western Pennsylvania as early as next month

HARRISBURG -- Western Pennsylvanians will be able to buy wine in some local grocery stores -- after looking into a camera and blowing into an alcohol sensor device -- as early as September.

A pilot test of two wine vending kiosks at suburban Harrisburg supermarkets has gone better than expected, the head of Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board said Tuesday, and the agency plans to approve 98 more machines in two or three weeks.

Giant Eagle plans to put kiosks in 14 Western Pennsylvania supermarkets by the end of the year.

Sales at the two test sites in Dauphin and Cumberland counties have been 20 to 30 percent higher than anticipated, a total of more than 3,300 bottles since June 21, LCB CEO Joe Conti said.

The machines, the first such wine kiosks in the country, have four coolers stocked with several hundred bottles, offering 53 wines. Prices range from $6.99 to $22.99, according to Stacy Kriedeman, spokeswoman for the LCB.

Simple Brands LLC, based in Conshohocken, near Philadelphia, provides the kiosks to the LCB for no charge. The company profits through advertisements on the machines and a $1 fee that will be added in the near future.

"The things we were most worried about, the technology, is working rather well," Mr. Conti said.

Attached to each kiosk is a small checkout booth. A customer must first scan his driver's license by inserting it into a slot on the kiosk, then peer into a camera so that an LCB employee working at an office in Harrisburg can determine that the customer is the same person pictured on the license. The customer then blows into a Breathalyzer guarded by a metal screen so that the LCB can verify a blood alcohol level below 0.02. (The legal limit in Pennsylvania is 0.08.)

The main issues that have arisen are a need to improve a door seal and figure out how to deal with power surges and electrical outages, Mr. Conti said.

An earlier plan to begin installation of the machines in Western Pennsylvania, then move east, has been changed, Mr. Conti said. Instead, they will be installed one grocery chain at a time, and all of them should be up and running in three to six months.

Although contracts are not final yet, Giant Eagle -- the largest supermarket in the area -- is likely to be one of the first to receive the kiosks, said Mr. Conti.

"We believe that Pennsylvania Giant Eagle customers will appreciate the convenience of being able to purchase wines in-store," said Dan Donovan, the supermarket chain's media relations manager. The locations of the Pittsburgh-area kiosks have not been announced.

"I'm all for it," said Marsha Cuffia, a member of American Wine Society of East Pittsburgh. "We should be up with the modern world."

Store managers, however, have resisted the idea. The Independent State Store Union, which represents state store managers, filed suit against the LCB and sought an injunction, saying that wine kiosks will reduce the sale of wine at Pennsylvania liquor stores, leading to a decrease in available work and layoffs.

The LCB has responded that the kiosks are themselves wine stores.

On Thursday, a Commonwealth Court judge turned down the managers' request for a preliminary injunction.

Judge Patricia A. McCullough noted that witness David Wanamaker, the union's vice president, could not say if the pilot kiosks had affected sales at nearby state liquor stores and could only recall one employee furlough in 35 years.

"We definitely have to 'accept' the machines at some point, and we're nearing that point," Mr. Conti said. "That will drive everything."

Mike Gonze, president of Dreadnought Wines, a specialty wine store in the Strip District, said he was not worried about the kiosk affecting his business.

"Can you ask the machine a question?" he asked. "If anything, it might be competition for their own stores."

Ashley Mannings is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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