I’m an adult who, on occasion, enjoys drinking in moderation. Since I live in Pennsylvania I am forced to purchase liquor through what is charitably described as the very worst state-owned liquor monopoly in the entire universe.

I’ve written about this in detail before: the painfully unhelpful staff at many stores, and that the system seems more interested in punishing you for wanting to buy liquor than in trying to sell it. I’ve used some fairly immoderate language, because I think the State Stores deserve this sort of intervention: Pennsylvania clearly doesn’t want to sell wine and spirits, so they should do us all a favor and get out of the business of doing so.

But given the amounts of money involved in this gigantic government jobs program, I don’t really expect that to happen. So, in the interest of trying to help them do a better job, I’m going to explain how they can make one simple change to the system that will fix it. It will make the system easier to use and will help them sell more product, all at the same time.

It’s really simple: let me special-order wine and spirits on the web.

I was discussing this with a manager at a State Store the other day. “It’s really inconvenient to have to order things here,” I said. “It’s like going to the library or a record store: the moment I walk in to the store, I’ve forgotten what I need.”

“Well,” said the manager. “You can place orders over the phone.”

It’s true that you can place orders on the phone. But there are a few problems with this. First, and most importantly, any interaction with the PLCB where I have to talk to a human being is a bad interaction. Yes, I know that there are some stores where the staff is helpful, knowledgable, and friendly — the Centre Avenue store is particularly good — but on the whole talking to anyone at the PLCB is a bit like playing Russian Roulette. It’s not the sort of risk that offers good odds.

Second, even when the staff is helpful and friendly the process of making a special liquor order is super-painful, involving digging through reams of paper printed on a 1985-era dot-matrix printer until the employee can find some obscure code. The transaction cost of putting in an SLO is so high that I have, at times, put it off for weeks just to avoid the pain.

Lastly, I work for a living. Very often, I don’t even think of things like buying obscure liquors until long after everyone manning the phones at the PLCB has gone home for the night.

The PLCB does have an online store, but as near as I can tell it only stocks a small subset of their catalog – no “SLO”, or special liquor orders, at all. The PLCB’s entire product catalog, including SLO’s, is online also, but I can’t order any of the interesting stuff. Give me a web form where I can type in your SKUs, give you my credit card information, and tell you what store I want to pick the product up at, and I will be putting in orders tomorrow. I assure you I’m not the only one.

So please, PLCB. I know you hate liquor. I know you hate making money. I know you hate all of your customers in a very deep and personal way. But help me out. Let me place these orders on your web site. Make it easy, make it quick, and make it painless. Otherwise I may never get to try Cachaça Fazenda Mae De Ouro.


12 Responses to “Fixing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board”

  1. Chris says:

    You can email in your order… perhaps that ends with a call-back and short circuiting the painfulness of calling them?

  2. Julie says:

    They don’t hate making money. Anyone charging a minimum of 30% over an average state doesn’t hate making money. They just don’t like selling good stuff. Maybe it’s their consciences bothering them. The good stuff costs more to begin with, and then they feel bad because they notice they’re ripping you off more than the average customer.

  3. peterb says:

    I happened to head to a State store after writing this article. I mentioned my concern to the manager there about not being able to place special orders online.

    Him: “Oh, you can place special orders online.”

    Me: “Huh?” I said. “Really, how?”

    Him: “Well, you just do it.”

    Me: “Because I’ve tried, and I couldn’t do it.”

    Him: “You just find the item you want, and write down the number. Then you hit ‘back’ on your browser until you get to the email address, and click on it. That will start Outlook and you send your order in.”

    I smiled, and nodded, and said “Well, I’ll have to try that, then.” It’s pretty clear that our respective ideas of what “ordering online” meant differed too substantially for us to talk reasonably about this.

    Hopefully, there’s someone at the liquor control board who “gets it.” But I’m not holding my breath.

    Chris: on my planet “order online” means that I place an order at 3 in the morning and never, ever have to talk to an actual human being unless there’s a problem with the order. On the PLCB’s planet “order online” means that I send email at 3 in the morning and then a stranger calls me up during business hours, probably right in the middle of some important meeting, to ask me for my credit card information. That ain’t good enough.

  4. Chris says:

    Agreed, ordering via email is horridly bad, but atleast it gets you partway there… Perhaps the LCB is all mobbed up like PennDot is/was and they just don’t care about this?

  5. Chris Hanson says:

    The fact that the state isn’t stupidly prudish is one of the best things about living in California.

    If I decide to do my grocery shopping at 2AM, I can. If I decide to buy some liquor as part of my groceries, I can. Even the tiniest hole-in-the-wall restaurants can get liquor licenses easily. And so on.

    Is there anyone who actually argues for keeping the PLCB the way it is when the issue must periodically be raised? Or is it all just a matter of momentum?

  6. Just to clarify because I don’t quite get it — Are you saying that in Pennsylvania, the only way to buy liquor is to go into one of these PLCB stores?

    Does PA allow no alcohol sales in grocery stores, 7-Elevens — and no indie wine stores? I’m just a lil confused as to what’s going on — Whether you keep going to these sad PLCB stores because you have no other option, or whether, despite the bad service and stuff, the PLCBs have the best liquor selection –

    My big beef with California is that the bars close at 2 am –

  7. peterb says:

    Correct. In Pennsylvania, you can only buy wine and “spirits” from state-run liquor stores (and bars and restaurants, of course, but they charge a substantial markup, and I don’t believe they’re allowed to sell you anything that isn’t opened on premises).

    Beer can be purchased from beer distributors (by the case) or in smaller quantities from bars.

    There is some weird exemption for indie wine stores that are allowed to sell certain wines that the PLCB doesn’t carry, but these stores are few and far between and it’s a fair approximation to say that they don’t sell wine that anyone wants to drink.

  8. Nat says:

    Pete’s right — bars may sell up to about two six-packs in one transaction.

    If you want to buy three six-packs (you lush, you), you have to make two separate purchases. Buy two, go out, come back in, buy the third.

    All three six-packs will generally be at close to the full bar markup, of course.

  9. peterb says:

    I forwarded this article to the PLCB, and they graciously replied with this comment:

    “Thank you for your email and for allowing us to see your posting on Tea Leaves. As you correctly point out our online store http://www.pawineandspirits.com currently only carries a limited amount of products. We are in the process of increasing the selection so that the majority of the products that are carried in our stores are also available online. Our long range goals will allow for the capability to place a deposit for Special Liquor Order products. Although I can not give a time frame as to when that feature will be available I do know that the option has been discussed as a viable feature for our ecommerce initiates. Again thank you for your interest in Pawineandspirits.com. Sincerely, Deidre Costello”

    So perhaps there’s hope. If being able to order SLO’s online is something that’s important to you, you might consider sending them email. They read it.

  10. bradley tuck says:

    Er, didn’t prohibition end in 1933 or something. And isn’t this the home of the free, or some such other baloney. Or is Pennsylvania a suburb of Saudi Arabia? That means that realistically it’s probably easier to buy crack than a beer in some cities. Welcome to Moronsville, USA.

  11. Might as well try tilting at windmills too there Mr. Q.

    PA is one of only 4 states that have a monopoly on wine sales. UT obviously. WY? and NH. NH makes a ton of money because of having a lower wine tax than MA. Still, no good reason why it can’t be done by private stores paying the tax.

    Only one province in .ca is a monopoly, Ontario. A couple of years ago, the PIT Biz Journal had an article about how even the Canadians are more effient than the PLCB.

  12. GeorgeW says:

    It’s taken a lot of years but I’ve fianlly come to the conclusion that the Pa LCB is one archaic dinosaur! Take the LCB, abolish it, turn liquor/wine sales over to pvt. enterprise & make it conditional that the LCB folks get hired by the new retail owners. I live close enough to New Jersey where it’s convenient & cost effective to drive over & do my purchasing. Most importantly, the employees are friendly, helpful beyond belief & so knowledgeable. Just trash the entire outdated concept of the state running liquor stores & get it into pvt. hands where it truly belongs. Let’s have some competition as they have in Calif. I can go into a GROCERY store in Calif. & purchase beer & a decent bottle of wine. Their system works & I sure like that!