This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As businesses go, the Utah liquor monopoly is a strange duck. By law it is not allowed to promote the sale of its merchandise, but legislators demand that it operate efficiently and make as much money for government treasuries as possible. When those same lawmakers hire a consultant to produce a better business plan, there are some unusual limitations, such as requiring that the business not try to increase sales.
Despite these contradictions, a new consultant's report suggests that there are efficiencies to be had by operating the state's liquor stores more like a private retail business. The best idea is to expand the system of state package stores, which function like private retail franchises, to increase the number of sales locations. Package stores generally operate in places like grocery stores, drug stores or stand-alone shops in strip malls.
The consultant even recommended that the new director of the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control actually have experience managing a retail business. What a concept!
So, if more package outlets made it more convenient for people to buy liquor, would that be promoting sales? Well, not in the way that, say, advertising does, but, yes, it would. Still, legislators who are rightfully concerned about not encouraging drunken driving, alcohol abuse and underage drinking should realize that people who want to buy liquor are going to do so whether the store is convenient or not.
One lawmaker said during a hearing the other day that the Legislature should be leery of expanding the number of package agencies in grocery stores because the state does not want to promote "impulse purchases." But liquor is like other goods. If the customer's supply at home is gone, and he sees the product at the store, he might buy it. If he already has enough at home, he probably won't. In that way, the product might as well be toothpaste or potatoes. Drinkers aren't automatically going to buy a bottle of booze just because they see one for sale.
That's not to say that liquor should be treated like any other product. Toothpaste, obviously, does not make the user intoxicated. Lawmakers are right to be concerned about alcohol abuse and drunken driving.
The difficult trick is to strike a reasonable balance between regulation and convenience for the responsible customer. The consultant is right that there is room to make the state liquor monopoly more efficient by increasing the number of package agencies, perhaps using that as an experimental transition to a private market. It's worth a try.