On February 10, 2021

Liquor stores see  surge in sales despite bar closures 

By Katy Savage

With the closure of bars, people are drinking at home like never before.

Liquor stores across the country and locally have seen record sales since the start of the pandemic last March.

The week after a national state of emergency was declared, alcohol sales jumped 54% from the previous year, according to a report an industry from Nielsen, while online alcohol sales jumped 262%.

In Vermont, retailers saw a record-breaking $87.9 million in liquor sales in fiscal year 2020, (extending from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020), up from $82.2 million in fiscal year 2019, according to an annual report released by the Department of Liquor Control in January.

Liquor sales contributed $31.8 million to the state’s general fund, up 12.25% from the previous year.

While the sale of liquor has generally climbed every year statewide, the report said the closure of bars and restaurants this year has forced new patterns of buying behavior, which has worked in the favor of local liquor outlets.

Beverage Brewfest Manager Jared Mailhiot provides alcohol for about 15 local bars and restaurants in Ludlow, including Okemo Mountain Resort.  He was initially concerned the forced closures would deter alcohol sales.

“We totally expected the initial shutdown to slow things down to a snail’s pace but it didn’t happen,” Mailhiot said. “It was a slow increase from the start. By the time summer hit, it’s just been non-stop.”

Beverage Brewfest saw $1.3 million in sales in fiscal year 2020, a slight increase over the previous year’s $1.26 million, according to the annual report. About 25 % of the store’s total sales occurred between March and July.

“There has definitely been some impact based on certain [bars] not being open at all,” Mailhiot said. “All in all, that hasn’t deterred liquor sales.”

Mailhiot said when people come to his store, they’re not just buying a few items, they’re stocking up to reduce the number of times they have to go out.

“There are a lot of people who are just trying to stay home,” Mailhiot said.

Mailhiot said an increase in the number of permanent residents has also helped sales.

“I think there are a lot of factors to it, things are busy,” he said.

Like Mailhiot, Woodstock Beverage owner Clay Hillgrove was nervous at the start of the pandemic but those fears were quickly eliminated.

“It went completely the opposite of where I thought it was going to,” Hillgrove said. “The general public is outdrinking the restaurants by far.”

Woodstock Beverage provides alcohol for several large businesses, including Simon Pearce, the Woodstock Inn and the Quechee Club, many of which have remained closed to alcohol sales.

While bottle sales are up, Hillgrove said the sale of bartending accessories has also “skyrocketed” since restaurants closed, with people becoming their own at-home bartenders. Most people turned toward tequila at the start of the pandemic.

“Tequila was [selling] 10:1 over anything else,” Hillgrove said. “People thought it was medicine.”

Hillgrove said people have also splurged on more expensive bottles as those with disposable incomes aren’t spending their money on vacationing or entertainment.

The closure of the state’s borders has also worked in Hillgrove’s favor. He’s gained more local traffic as people who would otherwise cross the border to buy alcohol in New Hampshire are staying in Vermont.

Most retailers saw the largest jump in liquor sales between March and July last year.

The Killington Deli and Marketplace, Killington’s liquor outlet, was closed for a period of that time, but reopened in May.

“Since we opened back up on May 19, we’ve been extremely busy through the whole summer,” said Valerie Hannan of the Killington Deli and Marketplace.

Killington Deli saw $1.6 million in sales last fiscal year, down about 10% from the previous year, due in part to the number of area bars that have remained closed. Some bars reopened over the summer under strict guidelines, but Gov. Phil Scott ordered bars to close again in November. It’s unclear when bars will be able to reopen again. In the meantime, Hannan said foot traffic has been steady.

“I think everybody thinks if they drink they’re not going to get Covid,” Hannan said.

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