In spite of the coronavirus spread, many have experienced an uptick in sales.
For Somerville liquor store Downtown Wine and Spirits, more than half of their staff quit in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to fears of contracting the virus. This turn of events took place just as the shop received an exponential increase in sales from customers.
“When the news started making the rounds back in March, everyone thought it was the end of the world. So they were just buying in bulk, and we made record business,” store manager Mark Epstein said. “In that week, it was just nonstop.”
Employees who continued working in Somerville liquor stores doubled their usual shifts to keep up with the requests.
“We were all working 14 or 15 hour days, six or seven days a week, in the beginning of the pandemic,” Ophir Degany, one of the managers of Ball Square Fine Wines, said. “Now we’re back to a normal 40 hour week, and everything gets done without losing your mind.”
While sales have leveled out since April, most Somerville liquor stores have received the same, if not better, business since the beginning of the pandemic — an experience unlike millions of small businesses in the United States, which have been hit hard by the virus.
“People are at home all day and not going to the office anymore,” Degany said. “I mean, there’s something about online shopping that people do when they are bored, and there’s also something about drinking that people do when they’re bored.”
Assistant/clinical director of Boston Alcohol and Substance Abuse Programs (ASAP), Joseph Salgado, attributes the uptick in at-home drinking to the increased stress people are facing from job pressures, either losing work or working more hours than expected.
“It just hasn’t been easy for people. So what I’m seeing and hearing is that they just start going right to the alcohol as a stress relief. Before they know it, by the end of the night, they’ve consumed [alcohol],” Salgado said. “And then what happens, after that, is then they realize that they start drinking to help them fall asleep.”
Nearly one fifth of all Massachusetts restaurants have permanently closed due to the pandemic. This has affected the alcohol industry, as on-premise alcohol sales in restaurants and bars represent about 53% of the nation’s alcohol sales. Off-premise businesses are picking up the slack for the industry, but there will need to be a 22% volume growth in all alcohol categories sold off-premise to level off the impact.
“If anything, we have become much more important to the wholesalers because the restaurant business has gone down, so we have to fill in the gaps,” Degany said.
Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, said that while many businesses have seen a boom, that’s not necessarily a universal experience.
“There has been a lot of talk in the media about how this is just a gift to liquor stores,” Mellion said. “Some stores in Boston are getting hampered right now because there aren’t college students or there are very few college students.”
Degany said restaurant closings have not affected their businesses at Ball Square Fine Wines, since Massachusetts prohibits liquor stores from selling to restaurants. However, offices within the tech and bio pharma corporate worlds — whom they usually sold to before — have since gone online, completely taking away that sector of income.
Liquor stores received a boom of online shopping orders, through alcohol e-commerce platforms such as Drizly. The site saw a 300% rise in sales from January to March of this year. Degany said that Ball Square Fine Wines saw 90% of sales purchased online, in the beginning of the pandemic, and 10% in store. Now, it is more around 50/50.
“If I was writing a memoir about [working during the beginning of the pandemic], the biggest thing would be how incredibly difficult it was to transition our business on a dime from business as usual to suddenly being an online store and delivery business,” Degany said. “We had no time to adjust, so we had to adjust in real time.”
Mellion said one silver lining of the pandemic could be how it forced liquor store owners to modernize their businesses.
“Some stores were already connected with Drizly before the pandemic, but many were not,” Mellion said. “Many stores weren’t relying on technology — many stores were quite frankly 20th century — and Drizly allows them to enter into the 21st century with digital retail using the Drizly platform.”
Unlike third-party platforms such as Uber Eats or Postmates — which have a reputation for taking large commissions on orders placed with local restaurants — Drizly is a technology company that works alongside vendors. Mellion said in most cases, stores provide their own delivery drivers to check customers’ identifications and maintain compliance with state and local liquor laws.
“Some third-party options are using Doordash delivery drivers, but if the third party doesn’t obey the law, that liability falls on the store,” Mellion said. “So many stores now are exercising their authority on that issue, and they’re insisting on doing delivery with their own vehicles.”
Online ordering was not the only adjustment these businesses had to make. They also needed to comply with public health ordinances in real-time, as scientists updated the public frequently with new information about ways the virus can spread.
“There was certainly a learning curve, because at the beginning of the pandemic, the rules changed almost daily,” Jay Cahill, manager of Proof liquor store in Somerville, said. “No one knew what to do at the beginning, so there was a lot of anxiety in the store.”
Ball Square Fine Wines initially required all customers to put on gloves before entering the store, but it has since gotten rid of that rule, as more information came out about how the virus spreads. The store — as well as Proof and Downtown Wine and Spirits — is currently implementing frequent cleaning procedures, mask restrictions, and limited occupancy, as well as any other state-required public health measures.
“We’re lucky in the community that we’re in,” Degany said. “For the most part, people in this community understand the situation, and there are always going to be people who are going to make trouble — but that’s definitely a small minority.”
With the holidays coming up, Degany said they are unsure about how the coronavirus will affect business in a time when it usually receives roughly half of their yearly sales.
“That’s historically what it’s been, but I don’t know what’s going to happen this time, because I imagine people aren’t having big holiday parties,” Degany said. “I don’t know if it is going to be really a big change or not.”
This article was produced by students in Prof. Gino Canella’s Grassroots Journalism course at Emerson College for the Somerville Wire.
The Somerville Wire is an initiative of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. All Somerville Wire articles may be republished by community news outlets free of charge with permission and by larger commercial news outlets for a fee. Republication requests and all other inquires should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.