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Pennsylvania Puts Wine in Grocery Stores

Control state allows three markets to try automated kiosks that test breath and dispense bottles

by Linda Jones McKee
Wine Kiosk
Conveniently located next to the deli department, the wine kiosk allows Pennsylvania consumers to buy wine at the supermarket. Wine selections are in the left-hand cases. The checkout module on the right contains a camera remotely monitored by a state employee.
Mechanicsburg, Pa.—It looks like just another supermarket in any shopping mall across the country. But the Wegmans in Mechanicsburg, Pa., is one of only three grocery stores in the state with wine available for sale to consumers. In June, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board placed two wine kiosks in grocery stores outside of Harrisburg, and last week opened another in Drexel Hill outside of Philadelphia. (Pennsylvania is a “control state.” Previously, wine was retailed only at PLCB’s state-run liquor stores or winery tasting rooms.)

Patrick Stapleton, chairman of the PLCB, noted that “the kiosks have proven to be safe and reliable, and we are looking forward to giving consumers across Pennsylvania the opportunity to do one-stop shopping.” The PLCB plans to expand the kiosks to 100 grocery stores.

Wines & Vines visited Mechanicsburg to check out how the kiosk system works—and what consumers think about them. Wegmans is an expansive  supermarket, and even though there are signs hanging from the rafters announcing that wine is for sale in the store, the kiosk’s exact location was not readily apparent. The kiosk itself looks like just another grocery case. One woman told me she shops in Wegmans regularly, but had never noticed the kiosk before because it wasn’t on her regular “grocery route.”

The kiosk consists of four sections of wine, all locked behind glass doors, and a fifth bay with a computer for selecting and purchasing the wine. There is space for 20 bottles of sparkling wine or wine in 1.5 L bottles in one section, and each of the other sections holds 24 bottles. However, even with 92 spaces available, only 53 wines are for sale through the kiosk. Of the wines available, 28 are from California, and one Riesling is from Washington. No other regions of the country—and no local wines—are included. The new kiosk in Drexel Hill reportedly now has one local wine available—a Niagara from Chaddsford Winery.

The fifth bay of the kiosk is the purchasing center. A computer touch-screen gives a choice of viewing “Reds,” “Whites,” or “All Varietals,” and then shows a label, the wine name, bottle size and price, and the option to “learn more” or “add to cart.” The information provided about each wine is limited to a sliding scale graph of “Body” from light to heavy and “Sweetness” from dry to sweet. Very basic wine and food pairings are also suggested, such as “Seafood, chicken” with a Woodbridge Chardonnay and “Beef/Grilled” with a Robert Mondavi PVS Cabernet Sauvignon.
proof of age wine purchase
Andrew Breining from Camp Hill, Pa., completed the process and purchased a bottle of Yellowtail Cabernet. Note breathalyzer, bottom left. Photos by Linda Jones McKee.
Once a customer chooses her wine and selects the number of bottles, the checkout procedure begins. First, the computer asks for a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, which must be inserted and scanned in order to verify the customer’s age. The computer then connects with a PLCB employee in the remote location who is assigned to monitor the kiosk, using the video camera above the screen. If the customer looks like the person on the ID, then the purchase can continue.

The computer asks for a credit card, then an OK to a statement that the customer agrees to pay the stated amount for the wine, which includes the cost of the wine, taxes and a $1.00 “convenience fee.” After signing for the purchase, the customer is instructed to blow into a breathalyzer, which looks like a 2-inch hole covered by a wire screen. Only after the machine determines that the customer is not intoxicated will the doors of the kiosk be activated so that the wine can be accessed.

Consumer reaction
How is the system working? Since June, more than 7,400 bottles of wine have been sold at the kiosks in the two Harrisburg locations. That’s more than 600 cases of wine that the PLCB might not have sold if those kiosks didn’t exist.

However, during our one-hour visit to the kiosk in Wegmans, only one person actually used the system to buy wine. Others were put off by the complexity of the procedure, the lack of selection and the difficulty of obtaining any information about the wines for sale. Potential customers offered numerous comments: “I’ll just wait and go to the liquor store where I can really look at the wines;” “Look at that—you have to breathe into it to show you’re not drunk;” and “I don’t have time to do that now; maybe I’ll come back later.”

Kiosks in grocery stores may result in more sales for the PLCB, and certainly selling wine alongside food in supermarkets has been a long- sought goal for many in Pennsylvania. While it may be convenient to have wine available in kiosks, for many consumers the smaller choice of wine, plus the added cost, may not be the ultimate solution to their wine-buying needs.
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