The PLCB’s Version Of “Innovation” (or “God Help Me, I’m A Wine Lover Living In PA!”)

Vinted on July 5, 2011 binned in commentary

The recent news of perpetually-hip grocery company Wegman’s pulling out of the troubled PA Liquor Control Board’s wine kiosk program has caused a bit of a stir in the wine world, if we take “stir” to mean “mostly sardonic snickering, followed by a glassy-eyed stare caused by the grim realization that we live in a universe where things like the inane PA wine kiosk program are actually allowed to happen in the first place.”

Welcome to my neck of the wine woods, folks!

It seems that current Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Chairman Patrick J. “PJ” Stapleton (the “PJ” is his addition, not mine) has had enough of the snickering part, though. On June 23rd, posted an Op/Ed letter written by Stapleton in response to the criticism coming his way over the Wegman’s kiosk fiasco.

What I’d like to do is deconstruct PJ’s open letter, because it’s filled with enough holes that it could double as a riddling rack – not that us PA residents could actually fill that riddling rack with actual wine, mind you… at least not the wine that we want to order, since the state stores probably don’t carry that stuff… okay, whatever.

Anyway… Let’s take a walk together through the monopoly-infected mind of PJ Stapleton…

Following is the text of PJ’s letter to, emphasis mine, followed by some peanut-gallery commentary from someone living the dream (that dream being a nightmare) as a PA wine consumer (that would be a slightly-more-infuriated-than-normal version of me):

“While it is true, as a recent editorial indicated (“Kiosk idea staggers,” June 13), that Wegmans Food Market has decided to discontinue the program, it is worth remembering that Wegmans made an investment with full knowledge that the kiosk reached far outside the face-to-face customer service Wegmans was accustomed to providing. The editorial also failed to point out that the kiosk program is but a small part of the overall business the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is engaged in. The wine kiosk was evidence of innovation at its finest, something the wine and spirits industry had not seen before. This made it an easy target for criticism.”

PJ is correct, the kiosks reached “far outside” of face-to-face customer service;  but it’s not just the type of service Wegman’s and its customers would expect – it’s the kind of service that any consumer or business should have expected. Never mind that the kiosks creepily record personal information – “creepily” meaning the machines include a camera watching your purchase, requiring validation remotely by PLCB staff, and they also required – not kidding here – a breathalyzer test before dispensing booze.  Forget all of that stuff for a moment (I know it’s difficult, but work with me here). It’s more damning that the kiosks didn’t actually work properly.  As the editorial that riled up poor PJ stated, “No decent establishment likes anyone bothering the customers, and that’s exactly what the buggy booze-bots have been doing. Wegmans said the high volume of complaints about them was the most important reason for the eviction notice.

There’s more:

“Kiosks are nothing new in the retail industry. Many major retailers use them. And every successful retailer knows that failing to bring innovation and creativity to customers is likely to result in business failure. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s focus on bringing innovation to our customers couldn’t be stronger.”

Failing to bring innovation can, indeed, ring the death knell for retailers. But PJ seems to have a very loose interpretation of “innovation,” equating it with the introduction of technology.  Innovation is not dumping a souped-up, Frankenstein-monster of a vending machine into stores and expecting customers to trade personal data exposure for the convenience of being able to buy a (very) limited selection of booze. Innovation is staying a few steps ahead of the market, and working your ass off to push the market to catch up with you – that doesn’t necessarily require technology to pull off successfully. The PLCB kiosks are a tech band-aid (the dinky, meant-for-your-pinky kind) trying to cover the gaping wound (the bitten-by-a-great-white-shark kind) of woefully outdated laws supported by a government-run monopoly that actually stifles market innovation at nearly every turn.

I do agree with P.J. on the last bit, though:

“In return, what we could use is fewer inaccurate political attacks and more productive discussion and action on behalf of all Pennsylvania consumers.”

In fact, here’s where PJ and I agree almost totally.

It’s just probably not in a way that he would have imagined.

I’d certainly love to see more productive dialog with fewer political attacks – as in, fewer flawed, cronyism-induced legal and PA government-sponsored attacks on the free market when it comes to liquor sales in The Commonwealth, and I’d equally love to see further productive dialog to progress the inevitable move towards privatization upon which its citizens will (hopefully… eventually) insist.






  • Mark Cochard

    Dude, I assume you saw this piece from Lew a couple of weeks ago.

  • Timmy

    Mr. Dude – at this point, you might just want to consider relocating and be done with it.

    • 1WineDude

      Ok, so how did I know *that* was coming… ;-)

  • Jeff C

    Chairman Stapleton is 100% correct when he states that "…every successful retailer knows that failing to bring innovation and creativity to customers is likely to result in business failure…" He knows that if the PA Wine & Spirit stores don't work to improve, customers will leave in droves and go to the competition! Oh, wait, there IS no competition in a state-run monopoly. So what WAS he talking about??

    Hmmm, maybe the title "Chairman" was borrowed from Mao?

    • 1WineDude

      Jeff C – HA! BEST comment I have received on a PLCB-related post in some time (well, funniest in any case!). I damn nearly spit my tea across the computer screen here! :)

  • Jay Ostrich

    Great stuff! We are calling him Chairman Wow, especially given his latest release fiasco this morning

    Until then, stay thirsty, comrade!

    • 1WineDude

      Jay – clearly I need to spend way, way, WAY more time checking out your website! :)

  • phillywinefinder

    Have you ever blind tasted PLCB Chairman's Selection wines with comparable wines from outside the system and posted the results on your web site? In my experience, the PLCB CS wines are often (not always) just as good and sometimes better in taste and price. I've really come to enjoy the selection and price of the CS wines.

    • 1WineDude

      PhillyWineFinder – I am failing totally to understand how a blind taste test between wines inside or outside a control system are relevant in any way to the issue of whether or not the PA government should be in a monopoly position that doesn’t compete in the free market.

      The point is not just whether or not the job is done well – it is whether or not the job should be done *at all* by the government.
      Discussing if the artificially (because it is outside of the free market system) curated selection of the PLCB is somehow superior to the selections available in a free market is a smoke screen.

      It has been discussed many times here on 1WD and in the comments that the PLCB buying power can leverage great prices for some wines. The issue is not value for money in those circumstances, it is (in part) the lack of choice and availability of wines NOT in the system of which PA residents might not even be aware.

  • phillywinefinder

    If the govt could provide wines that taste as good or better and are priced as good or better than the so-called free market, as a wine lover why are you so against it doing so? Just out of free market principle? What are you Milton Friedman or something? Speaking only from the point of view of wine, I'm surprised that you and others are so hostile to the PLCB. I know about the selection from out-of-state and I've compared it to the PLCB. Flipping it around, I think the PLCB is a good alternative to the selection in the non-control states and I'm glad the PLCB exists.

    • 1WineDude

      PhillyWineFinder – I have to use the term free market because, well, there isn't another term to describe it – if you read some sort of lofty Hail-To-The-Chief pomp and circumstance into that phrase, that's *your* hang-up, bro. I do, of course, take the free market principle seriously – I mean, asking about "Just out of free market principle?" is kind of like asking about "just out of habeas corpus?" It's pretty fundamental.

      The government sells alcohol in PA.

      Think about that statement for a second.

      Speaking from the point of view of wine, I do not understand why they have to do that. When asked, the reasons that come back essentially are things like "to keep our kids/roads/etc. safe." And then the data shows that it has pretty much no impact whatsoever on those things. So we get what many reasonable people who describe as lies in response to those questions. Revenue, taxes and unions are much more likely reasons why the PA government remains in the alcohol business. Those aren't good enough, I think, to justify a monopoly. If they government controlled to that level what food you could buy, or what clothes you could buy, or just about any other product where the free market normally dictates selection, availability and price, don't you think there would be a lot of pissed off people? Why should it be so different for wine?

      Selection in stores is one thing – and if you think it's easy dealing with the PLCB as a wine producer or distributor to get your wine into that selection and make a profit, then you're obviously not talking to those people – but the monopoly position prevents competition, so PA residents get screwed on things like direct shipping, conveniences that shoppers in other non-control states take for granted.

      So, yeah, I am concerned and angry about the situation and I write to call attention to it, because I live in a place where the free market isn't in play for a product I enjoy above almost all others, and upon which I'm planning to make my livelihood. I'm selfish – I w ant it to change; that motivates me to post my occasional rants in favor of privatization in PA. See, that's the free market at work right there :).

      • phillywinefinder

        As a simple wine consumer, the bottom line for me is how the wine tastes in the glass and how much it costs. As you said: "PLCB buying power can leverage great prices for some wines." The selection issue is not an issue for me personally. I walk into the Premium Collection stores and I think there's no way could I try all the Chairman's Selections. Plus they change all the time. So, since price and selection are not an issue for me, I have no problem with the government selling it. The usual problem with monopolies is that they can charge whatever they want since they face no competition. But this monopoly has good or better prices on the products I buy. As a bonus it provides some decent jobs and revenue to the state. Sorry but I don't see the problem.

        • 1WineDude

          phillywinefinder – I appreciate that and understand it. From my perspective, the prices on wines that I want to buy, *if* the PLCB carries them, can be over 30% more expensive than buying direct or when offered in other states. So from my perspective, I have a big problem as a wine consumer here.

          • phillywinefinder

            Ok, I agree. If you start out with a pre-selected list of wines that you want, then the PLCB is going to give you a lot of headaches. Once I realized that the way to do it is to try to find the good stuff among what they have selected I became a lot happier. Also I don't find it difficult to go outside the system, but I do that less and less. Thanks for your comments.

            • 1WineDude

              @phillywinefinder – No, thank YOU for your comments! I appreciate the discussion! Cheers.

              • phillywinefinder

                Well thanks for the replies. Do you ever give tasting notes for PLCB wines? I'd be interested.

              • 1WineDude

                phillywinefinder- It's not a PA-specific blog so I just give notes, reviews, articles, etc. on wines, period. I don't check if they are in the PLCB system or not – that's impractical for example at large tastings in other states, or when visiting a wine region, etc.



    What do you fear from a private system?

    "Just out of free market principle?" – Is this a serious question?

  • Todd - VT Wine Media

    rats, I'm staying Scranton on my way to the WBC in a couple of weeks, and I was hoping to take one of the kisoks for a ride while they were still available…

    • 1WineDude

      Todd – I know, I was also hoping to try out the madness at some point!

      • Todd - VT Wine Media

        I really want to see how it responds when we've tasted a few wines already, and blow over the meter…
        Looking forward to meeting you at WBC.

        • 1WineDude

          Todd – *exactly* what I'd had in mind. But now, I'm not sure I want to give these monstrosities any more coverage… :)

          See ya in VA!

  • CCE

    To Phillywinefinder – you must live near one of the Premium specialty stores. Aren't you the lucky one?! The Wine and Spirits store closest to me is Edgmont. Try finding a couple of decent bottles in that store. They don't even get the Chairman's selections. Consequently, I drive miles and miles from store to store trying to find the wine that I want to drink. The PLCB system is inconvenient and NOT customer oriented. And the customer service in most of the stores is DREADFUL. Most employees are just check-out register drones. Sorry, but it is true. There are some really decent employees (manager at Edgmont is one) who work hard to overcome the shortcomings of the PLCB system. But, most employees should go through training in product knowledge and basic customer service skills at the very least. Quality and excellence go out the window when the Unions walk in the door.

  • 1WineDude

    Thank *you* for ctonirbutnig… er… uhh… what you said! :)

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