While the wish for a bill to level the playing field for liquor stores is dead this year, some mom-and-pop shops are holding out hope lawmakers will pass a measure in 2023.
The Florida Independent Liquor Store Owners Association came forward this Session with a proposal (SB 1538/HB 1575) that would require distributors and manufacturers of wine or liquor to make even deals to vendors. In some cases, stores could even restock their shelves directly from the competition.
Mario Bailey, who represents the Independent Liquor Store Owners Association, said owners initially thought they weren’t receiving product deliveries because of supply chain disruptions. But as owners kept noticing big-box stores in stock, they began to feel targeted, or at least intentionally left out.
Kiran Patel, who owns three liquor stores in Broward County, said small businesses have repeatedly been told a product is unavailable. Only to later find the product on sale at stores like Costco.
“Slowly and systematically, we felt like we are being pushed out of business,” Patel said.
The Senate version of the bill, filed by New Smyrna Beach Republican Sen. Tom Wright, would require liquor distributors to make the same coupons available to all vendors. It would also prevent distributors from willfully discriminating against a vendor, misrepresenting their product availabilities to a vendor or taking retaliatory action against vendor.
The House version of the bill, filed by Homestead Democratic Rep. Kevin Chambliss, goes further. It addresses wine and liquor and places some of the same requirements on manufacturers.
Additionally, the House version would require distributors to alert vendors to a supply shortage. Within 24 hours of being notified, the vendor could purchase the impacted products directly from another vendor.
Bailey called the measure an industry fairness bill.
“Whatever you offer to the other guys, offer it to us too,” Bailey said.
The provision reads like a work-around to the three-tier system. But the products have already made their way through the system, meaning anyone, in theory, could buy from the vendors.
Patel, who opened his first store in 2015, said small businesses aren’t asking for exclusive deals or to buy smaller quantities at the wholesale rate that’s charged to big-box stores.
“Give them whatever you give them, but at least show (us) what you are giving them,” he said. “If we have enough strength and enough power, we can purchase the equal quantities.”
If a regular customer goes to their local store and can’t find the bottle they are looking for but finds it on sale at a larger competitor, that customer might be lost for good. Unlike larger stores, which draw in customers by marketing and name recognition, mom-and-pop shops make business by word-of-mouth and convenient locations.
“Customer service is our biggest thing,” Patel said. “We treat our customers like family and we give them respect. And when they walk into our store, they feel welcome and stuff like that. Besides that, it’s hard to bring the customer back.”
Shortages can be particularly impactful around the holidays, when customers are looking for a seasonal drink. But that time of year also is one of the biggest for the liquor industry.
Product availability has improved since small businesses filed legal complaints last year with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Still, products come in limited quantities.
Waiting another year for the legislation to go through — meaning waiting another holiday season — could be detrimental to local liquor stores.
“Not only me, it could put a lot of small businesses out of business if this thing keeps going,” Patel said.