LCB pulls plug on 31 wine kiosks
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Cutting-edge or boondoggle?
That question has followed the state's wine-dispensing kiosks ever since their inception and it has come up again, as malfunctions have forced the Liquor Control Board to take the 31 machines off-line statewide.
The grocery store kiosks, manufactured by Simple Brands of Conshohocken, a Philadelphia suburb, started acting up three weeks ago, when resistors inside the machines began malfunctioning, keeping wine bottles from being unlocked for buyers.
The company tried to fix them through software changes but when that did not work, it and the LCB shut down every machine at 9 p.m. Tuesday. The kiosks are expected to return to service in early January.
The machines are the first of their kind in the country, as they were manufactured solely to comply with Pennsylvania's antique alcohol laws. To complete a sale of a bottle of wine, they required customers to insert ID, stand in front of a camera, swipe a credit card and blow into a Breathalyzer.
"We spent a lot of time beta testing to make sure didn't have major issues," Simple Brands CEO Jim Lesser said Wednesday. "Anybody who buys a first-generation car or iPad knows you're going to see some kind of initial glitches."
The union representing Pennsylvania's 730 state store managers, a longtime critic of the machines, takes the opposite view.
"The announcement that these machines are being shut down indefinitely is further proof of the intentional, internal sabotage of the state store system," the Independent State Store Union said in a statement.
The union has been trying to obtain records of kiosk malfunctions through a Right to Know request it filed Dec. 1 and learned last week that the request was under legal review. The ISSU may have an ally in Auditor General Jack Wagner, who announced Tuesday that he will do a special performance audit of the machines.
The audit will study whether the kiosks are delivering on the promises of customer convenience and extra revenue that the LCB touted when it awarded its contract to Simple Brands, the only company that responded to the liquor agency's 2008 request for proposals.
"The kiosks' breakdown during the height of the holiday shopping season has left customers high and dry, and we want to know why," Mr. Wagner said.
Though the machines will be down during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, customers could not have used them on the holidays anyway, due to the state's strict alcohol rules. The kiosks, which are overseen by an on-duty LCB employee in Harrisburg, keep the same hours that state stores do, so they were already scheduled to be inoperable on the two major holidays, which fall on Saturdays.
State liquor stores will close at 6 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
Despite the shutdown, Mr. Lesser said most of the machines were working -- the malfunctions occurred in one of every 150 to 170 sales, he said.
The real bad timing for the kiosk glitches is not the holidays but rather the incoming Corbett administration, which has advocated privatizing the state store system. One of the leaders of that effort, state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, has said the kiosks (which just started operating in June) would be ended if privatization were successful.
The machines are "a silly type of an idea that only government bureaucracy could come up with," he said last month.
First Published December 23, 2010 12:00 am