SIC 5921

Liquor stores are establishments engaged in the retail sale of packaged alcoholic beverages, including ale, beer, wine, and liquor, for consumption off premises. Stores selling prepared drinks for consumption on premises are classified in SIC 5813: Drinking Places (Alcoholic Beverages).

NAICS Code(s)

445310 (Beer, Wine and Liquor Stores)

Industry Snapshot

In 2001, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 28,695 establishments engaged in the retail sale of packaged alcoholic beverages. The industry employed about 136,212 people with an annual payroll of $2.1 billion. By 2003, the total number of establishments grew to 33,902. Together, they shared $13.4 billion in annual sales. The total number of employees, however, remained about the same. The average beer, wine, or liquor store generated $400,000 in sales and employed about four people.

Organization and Structure

The liquor store industry is made up of mom-and pop retail outlets, independently run chains, and corporate-owned stores. While the vast majority of stores are small, family-run operations, there are a rapidly growing number are superstores primarily engaged in other kinds of businesses.

Among the industry's top companies, most remained independently run during the 1990s. Increasingly, however, they changed their retail strategy, consolidating multiple outlets into fewer but bigger warehouse-style stores, thus saving on overhead and payroll while still moving a large inventory. The effect has been hard on smaller neighborhood retail operations comprising the bulk of the industry. As one small retailer observed in the New York Times in 1996, "This is a slowly declining industry. The mom-and-pop shops justcan't compete with the superstores and the discounters." State and national statistics reinforce the story. In 1970, the New York State Liquor Authority issued 5,070 licenses for new stores. By 1995, 46 percent of the shops had shut down. While the traditional corner liquor store remains a fixture in most American towns, its future can no longer be taken for granted.

Background and Development

Throughout its history, the retail liquor store industry has been buffeted by changing social and political attitudes toward alcohol, and the sale of alcohol has always been highly regulated. The most severe period of regulation was the Prohibition era (1919 to 1933), during which alcohol consumption was completely outlawed by the federal government. Stores were forced to close en masse, and owners either left the business or went underground.

Liquor sales were legalized again in 1933, when it became clear that Prohibition had worsened bootlegging and facilitated the rise of organized crime. Responsibility for liquor regulation was returned to the states following Prohibition. Since then alcohol has been legally available in almost every part of the country, although a few localities remain "dry." But the nature of governmental regulation has varied markedly from state to state. Some states allow private ownership, while others restrict the sale of alcohol to state-run outlets. Some states permit grocery stores to sell wine and liquor, others do not. Some states tax liquor sales heavily, while others impose little or no taxation. In no state, however, is the production, distribution, and sale of liquor unlicensed or unregulated.

In 1978, many states deregulated liquor prices that had been set by the government. Deregulation allowed supermarkets and convenience stores to enter the business, which increased pressures on traditional corner liquor stores at a time they were already experiencing shaky profit margins. To compete, small retailers lobbied for permission to sell peanuts and other ancillary goods, such as finger foods, corkscrews, gift baskets, and lottery tickets.

State and local governments across the country have tried to address these problems. In 1994 residents of Barrow, Alaska, turned back the clock to Prohibition, voting to ban retail sales of all alcoholic products. A year later statistics showed a 70 percent drop in crime, a plunge in emergency room visits, and the virtual emptying of the town jail's "drunk tank," which usually had a full house, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, the ban was repealed after the one-year break, giving rise to bitter acrimony among residents (and an almost immediate refilling of the drunk tank). Some local Inupiat Eskimos and others charged opponents of the ban with a racist motivation to destroy native culture. Alcoholism, one state health official said, was the "worst problem facing native communities." Other Inupiats supported repeal, as did members of the majority community, who argued that the abuse of alcohol was an issue of individual, not social, responsibility. Pro-drink advocates also pointed to an increase in bootlegging during the dry period, as well as an increase in crime and hospital visits in neighboring communities.

Early in 1997 the Distilled Spirits Council (DSC) of the United States, a major trade group, decided to lift its self-imposed ban on television and radio advertising. The ban, included in its 1934 Code of Good Practice for Distilled Spirits Advertising and Marketing, followed the decision of the Seagram's distillery to advertise two of its scotch and bourbon brands. Even before the self-imposed ban was eliminated, nine states jointly petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 1996 to prohibit such commercials: Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Alaska had made the same request a month earlier. After hearing arguments about the state's concerns, the FCC announced in 1998 that it would postpone ruling on the petition because few distilled spirits ads were actually appearing. In 1999 the DSC itself responded to the states' petition in a statement issued by its president and chief executive officer, Peter Cressy, who said that the council was "open to considering new provisions that would strengthen all beverage alcohol advertising codes."

The retail liquor store industry experienced an increase in sales from $21.7 billion in 1990 to $22.5 billion in 1995 (preinflation figures), but the industry's real income declined 10 percent during the same period. This was on top of a 17 percent drop in real income from 1980 to 1990. Real income began to revive slightly 1996, registering a growth of 2.4 percent. Factors accounting for the industry's sagging numbers included a renewed public hostility over the relationship between alcohol sales and crime, which led to prohibitions on the sales of such alcoholic products as small bottles of strong, fortified wine and single cans of beer. State efforts to curtail the growth of liquor stores, competition from alternative sources of supply, and a nationwide crackdown on alcohol-related driving offenses also contributed to the drop in sales.

Other developments in the 1990s boded well for the industry. In 1996, the Joint Committee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture issued dietary guidelines indicating that a moderate intake of alcohol among adults may be beneficial to health. That same year the American Heart Association issued a scientific advisory noting a 30 percent decrease in coronary artery disease incidence for persons who consume a moderate amount of wine. Researchers at Colombia University released a study in 1999 showing that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the risk for stroke. Additionally, the liquor industry itself has taken action to improve sales. In 1996 national distillers voted to end their voluntary abstention from advertising liquor on broadcast media. In the first year, after the ban was lifted beverage marketers spent $609 million at retail for point-of-purchase advertising. By 1998 that figure had doubled. Many liquor stores have reported increased earnings because of vigorous advertising. However, the jury is out as to whether the liquor store industry as a whole will enjoy a resurgence.

Liquor store revenues during the 1990s may have suffered from the publication of studies showing the cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol and crime. A 1996 Brookings Institution report entitled "Broken Bottles: Alcohol, Disorder, and Crime," by John J. DiIulio, Jr., found that 60 percent of convicted homicide offenders drank heavily just prior to committing the crime, the same percentage of those committing other violent felonies. The report, which observed that alcohol "acts as a multiplier of crime," also cited studies showing 30 to 90 percent of convicted rapists were drunk when they raped.

Several studies focused on alcohol abuse among youths, and on the relationship between liquor stores and poverty. A 1996 report by the National Institutes of Health concluded that "Young adults have a higher prevalence of alcohol consumption and binge drinking than any other age group … Rates of alcohol abuse and dependence are disproportionately higher among those between the ages of 18 and 29…. Young adults are also over represented among alcohol-related traffic fatalities."

In Atlanta a mayoral task force prepared recommendations requiring new retailers to locate at least 1,000 feet—three city blocks—away from other alcohol sellers, and at least 600 feet from libraries, schools, residences, parks, hospitals, and places of worship. Texas liquor storeowners sought to limit the number of permits for retail operations to one for every 1,000 inhabitants. A few cities in the South sought to curtail permits issued for liquor stores located in poor neighborhoods. Some municipalities in other parts of the country chose to regulate liquor store hours, banning sales altogether on certain days. Other communities restricted the amount and type of gaming paraphernalia that could be sold by retail liquor stores.

In New Jersey police officers from the state's Alcohol Beverage Control Division placed themselves in liquor stores in college towns to apprehend youths trying to purchase liquor. By August 1996, the Cops-in-Shops program had arrested 363 people, including 58 adults who had attempted to purchase alcohol for persons under age 21. In 1998, almost 200 people were arrested during June, July, and August alone, most for using fake identifications. The program ultimately expanded to Atlantic City, Avalon, Wildwood, and Seaside Heights.

Another threat facing the liquor store industry in the 1990s was the emergence of cooperatives that arranged for distributors to deliver hard-to-find microbrews directly to consumers' homes. Beer Across America was the largest such cooperative in the United States, claiming 100,000 members in 1997. But the threat posed by beer cooperatives may be waning. With assets of $3.4 million and liabilities of $7.7 million, Beer Across America filed for bankruptcy in 1998. No other business has stepped in to swoop up the insolvent cooperative's members.

Several states also toughened their laws punishing motorists who drive while intoxicated (DWI). By 1999, 17 states and the District of Columbia had lowered to 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content the legal limit at which drivers could be prosecuted for DWI. The remaining 33 states allowed the higher limit of .10 percent. In July 1999, Vice President Al Gore announced that under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century federal grants of more than $500 million over six years would be made available to all states that had lowered their limit to at least 0.08 percent. A number of localities went further than lowering the legal limit for DWI offenses. New York City enacted a regulation authorizing police to confiscate the motor vehicles of drivers who have been arrested for DWI. By 2003, the lower blood—alcohol level had been adopted by the majority of states.

Current Conditions

According to Impact Databank, an organization that watches over the industry, overall volume is concentrated in a few states. States with the majority of the market share were California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Together, they controlled more than 63 percent of the market value. States with the least amount of liquor related stores were Utah with 58, Maine with 48, Vermont with 42, and New Hampshire with 22.

The largest sector, dominating more than 60 percent of the industry, was liquor stores. Hard liquor stores controlled 15.9 percent, while packaged beer accounted for 14.5 percent. The wine sector represented 8.2 percent, and wine and beer stores combined accounted for only 1.5 percent.

Beer consumption was considered the market leader with 85.3 percent share. However, Impact Databank reported liquor sales increased 3.2 percent, while beer fell 0.2 percent.

Industry Leaders

Major companies in the liquor store industry included Price Company, of San Diego, California; Kash-N-Karry Food Stores Inc., of Tampa, Florida; Carr-Gottstein Foods Company, of Anchorage, Alaska; Robert Mondavi Corporation, of Oakville, California; and Eder Brothers Inc., of West Haven, Connecticut. Eder Brothers was the only company whose sole business is the retail sales of alcoholic beverages. The other companies are also in related lines of business.

Of all the top liquors stores in the country, Carr-Gottstein has done the most to expand its business. Formed in 1990, Carr-Gottstein acquired Sea Mart Supermarket and Market Place Discount Food Stores in November 1993. The next year the company acquired Hanson Trading Company, and completed its purchase of Yukon Express Service, a food service supplier. Carr-Gottstein also runs a freight transportation business under the name Delchamps, which operates a liquor store chain in Florida. In April 1999, Safeway Co. purchased Carr-Gottstein for $330 million. At the time of the merger Carr-Gottstein was the state's largest grocery and liquor retailer with 49 stores.

Most liquor stores are privately held. Even among the top ten, only four are publicly traded: Delchamps; Carr-Gottstein; Cost Plus, of Oakland, California; and Bruno's. Based in Alabama, Bruno's owned more than 200 supermarkets in 1996, under the names Food Fair, Food Max, Food World, Bruno's Food Store, SSS Enterprises, and PS Holding Property. However, in 1999 Bruno's announced that it planned to close or sell 14 stores to put the company in a stronger financial and operational position. The stores included six in Alabama, five in Georgia, and three in Florida. After shedding the 14 units, Bruno's still owned and operated 149 stores in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia.

Among other industry leaders, Warehouse Wines & Liquors, of Stamford, Connecticut, is typical of large liquor retailers utilizing advanced technology for both inventory control and marketing. Inc. magazine reported that the firm's computerized inventory management system allows it's managers to know "exactly what has been sold as soon as it's gone," thereby eliminating almost all of its out-of-stock problems.

The relative ease of establishing a Web site and the worldwide marketing potential of the Internet has not been lost on liquor retailers. Hundreds of Web sites now sell wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages over the Internet. Wine Planet has emerged as one of the Internet's most successful liquor retailers. For the September 1999 quarter the company's online sales of alcohol increased by 97 percent over the previous quarter, reaching $1.41 million. Wine Planet's revenue from online advertising totaled $98,000 during the same period. Nationwide Internet sales presently account for $500 million of the $17 billion U.S. wine industry. But alcohol regulators say that the proliferation of Internet wine and beer retailers has cost states millions of dollars in lost tax revenues. Some states had even filed lawsuits against the Web site operators to recoup the losses.


Some 117,300 people worked in liquor stores in 1996, a drop of four percent from the 122,000 in 1990. A more dramatic picture emerges in a comparison of December employment, traditionally the industry's busiest month. In December 1990 employment reached 127,400. Five years later employment was only 114,600—a decline of more than 11 percent. This drop reflected the steady falloff in the number of liquor retailers across the country. It also coincided with declining industry revenues. Concerns over workplace safety may have contributed to the declining work force as well. The national homicide rate for liquor store employees is the highest for any industry in the country, except taxi drivers.

Further Reading

D&B Sales & Marketing Solutions, June 2004. Available from .

"Liquor Industry Gets Aggressive in War with Brewers." Wall Street Journal, 24 May 2004. Available from—bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2004/05/24/financial0839EDT0014.DTL

"The Beer Market." Impact Databank, 2002. Available from .

U.S. Census Bureau. Statistics of U.S. Businesses 2001. Available from .

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