Tastings: PLCB outlet stores treat customers inequitably



   
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For addresses of the seven outlet stores in Pennsylvania, visit the state Liquor Control Board Web site.
The Washington County store is in the Washington Mall, South Strabane. Take I-79 South to intersection with I-70 East. Exit at Murtland Avennue (first exit, Route 19 South) and enter the mall parking at the foot of exit. Pass Home Depot on right and at end of street, outlet is on left.

   

Most residents of Pennsylvania would say the state wine and spirit monopoly sells the same stuff for the same price throughout the state. But they would be wrong.

Although all of us are obliged to buy our wine and spirits exclusively from state stores, the state does not make the discounted prices it offers in some stores available to everyone. The reality is that there is a dual pricing system.

Because Pennsylvania adds $1.30 handling charge and 18 percent tax (the famous Johnstown Flood Tax) on every bottle sold in the state, residents in border areas regularly shop for wine outside the state.

Although it is not legal to import such purchases, the PLCB has recognized that the situation exists.

In June 2003, the State Liquor Control Board opened the first state outlet store near Philadelphia to help control this "border bleed" and keep all sales in-state.

There are now seven outlet stores, all of them a few miles from a border with Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware or New Jersey. They are in Chester County, Mercer County, Northampton County, Philadelphia County, Washington County and York County.

All outlet stores are open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

The seven outlet stores offer products not found in regular stores. All the special products are sold at discount prices.

To avoid the accusation of dual pricing, outlet stores sell products in quantities not sold in regular stores. Discount prices are available on spirits packaged in one-liter bottles, while in regular stores, spirits are packaged in 750 ml or 1.5 liter bottles. The liter bottles contain 33 percent more volume than a 750 ml bottle.

I traveled to Washington, Pa., to visit the outlet store on the border with West Virginia. You might like to know about some of the prices I found there.

One liter of Absolut Vodka is $21.99. A 750 ml bottle (3/4 liter) is $20.99 in Pittsburgh or in any regular store. The contents of the bottles are identical. The outlet product is not a lower proof or different quality. Only the quantity and the price are different.

Cuervo Tequilla sells for $20.99 a liter at the outlet, but $19.99 a 3/4 liter in a regular store.

A bottle of Martell French Cognac is $25.99 a liter at the outlet, but $24.99 a 3/4 liter in a regular store.

To make the wine discounts conform to the need to sell in different quantities, the outlet store shrink-wraps two bottles and sells them for slightly more than one bottle costs in a normal store.

Turning Leaf wines are available in various varietals. Chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon all cost $8.99 a bottle in Pittsburgh. In the Washington outlet store, a shrink-wrapped pair is $11.99.

Fetzer merlot, chardonnay or pinot grigio will cost you $9.99 a bottle in Pittsburgh, but $12.99 for two bottles in an outlet store. Gallo of Sonoma cabernet sauvignon or merlot sells for $13.99 in Pittsburgh, but $18.99 a pair in the outlet stores.

Any resident of Pennsylvania can purchase the discounted products from the Web but that will require a shipping fee of approximately $1 per bottle (depending on number of bottles shipped).

What is puzzling is why the PLCB is punishing residents who do not live in border areas by forcing them to buy wine and spirits from a state monopoly that practices a dual pricing policy.

I would argue that all residents should be offered the same discounts at any state store regardless of their proximity to a border.

It would only require adding liter-size bottles already in inventory to the shelves of stores throughout the state.

How can a state system that is meant to serve the entire population create a two-tier pricing structure that benefits a small percentage of the population?

I welcome your thoughts on this question, sent to my e-mail address below.

Wine tasters sought

If you would like to participate in a blind tasting of wines with a panel of Post-Gazette readers, please send your name, telephone, and email address to:

Elizabeth Downer
c/o Pittsburgh Post Gazette
34 Bvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh 15222


Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 6, 2006) Some price information in this story about outlet state stores was incorrect as priginally published on Oct. 5, 2006 The correct price in an outlet store for one liter of Absolut Vodka is $21.99. A 750 ml bottle (3/4 liter) is $20.99 in Pittsburgh or in any regular store.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.




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