- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RICHMOND | The sour economy hasn’t affected Virginians’ taste for liquor. It’s just encouraged them to do more drinking at home instead of in bars and restaurants, state Alcoholic Beverage Control sales figures show.

Overall liquor sales from July through November were up 6.5 percent from the same period a year ago, but the bulk of that increase came from sales to individual customers at ABC stores. Those sales rose 8.1 percent, while sales to bars and restaurants increased only 0.6 percent.

For the first five months of the fiscal year, sales were $272.3 million, up from $255.7 million for the same period last year.

Factor in price increases and the numbers are more modest. The number of bottles sold to individuals was up 3.8 percent while the number sold to mixed beverage licensees was down 1.9 percent.

“That is what you’d expect and what you’re seeing across the country,” said David Ozgo, chief economist with the Distilled Spirits Council, the national liquor trade association. “People stop eating out during a recession.”

But they don’t stop drinking, he said. They might go out less, and they might buy less expensive brands, but they won’t give up their booze entirely.

“While we’re not recession-proof, we’re not like the auto industry where things really go in the tank,” Mr. Ozgo said.

Craig Wolf, president and chief executive officer of Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, said while the industry is a resilient one, sales are worse than they have been in recent history.

“We’ve been through recessions before and we’ve faced it, but I think this one is a lot tougher than the recessions we’ve seen,” said Mr. Wolf, whose organization represents about 330 wholesalers and suppliers.

Sales in November and December - typically two of the strongest months - “have been very difficult,” he said. Final numbers were not yet available.

In Virginia, the results might have been bleaker had the state not expanded Sunday liquor sales.

Legislation that took effect July 1 allowed ABC stores in Hampton, Portsmouth, Newport News, Chesapeake and Richmond to open on Sundays. Stores in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and eight Northern Virginia localities have been open on Sundays since 2004.

With 76 additional stores open seven days a week, Sunday sales have soared 66 percent. About 80 percent to 90 percent of that probably is a true increase while the remainder is shifted from other days of the week, Mr. Ozgo said.

Virginia is one of 35 states that allow Sunday retail sales of liquor. More than one-third of Virginia’s 333 ABC stores are now open on Sundays.

Delegate Tom Gear, Hampton Republican and sponsor of the legislation to expand Sunday sales in Virginia, said he has received positive and negative comments from constituents. His response to the critics: “I tell them you could already buy liquor on Sunday. All you had to do was go to your local bar.”

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