Pa. liquor board touts consumer-friendly efforts

NEW HOPE, Pa. - July 25, 2010

The alcohol emporium represents the latest effort by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to win the hearts and minds of consumers as the recession intensifies talk of privatization.

Over the past few months, the board has unveiled a new retail website, trained employees in customer service, installed wine vending machines in supermarkets and - with the popping of a prosecco cork - opened a state store that incorporates consumer ideas.

Board Chairman P.J. Stapleton said buyers will have a "world-class retail shopping experience" at the store in New Hope, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia.

"This is the store the consumers want," Stapleton said at the grand opening last Thursday.

The new emphasis on customer service rings a little hollow to those who say it simply aims to deflect calls for privatizing the state monopoly on liquor and wine. Critics have long argued the board should not simultaneously police and promote alcohol, and that customers pay more for fewer choices and less convenience under Pennsylvania's antiquated system.

Such talk has gained traction as the state faces steep budget cuts, said Nate Benefield, director of policy research for the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.

Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, introduced legislation in April to privatize liquor and wine sales, estimating private licenses could generate $2 billion. GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett has said he'd explore the idea.

"Trying to be more customer-friendly is part of their way of saying, 'We don't need to privatize, we're doing a good job,"' Benefield said.

Customers seem to have embraced board initiatives like the supermarket wine "kiosks" - essentially high-tech vending machines that enable shoppers to get vino and groceries in one place, instead of making a separate trip to a state store.

Consumers also admired the layout of the store in New Hope, which officials say was designed based on customer surveys and focus groups.

Its wide aisles, hanging lamps, faux wood cabinetry, informational booklets and dedicated space for product tastings are supposed to encourage browsing and enhance the shopping experience. Eco-friendly aspects include energy-saving lights and no plastic bags.

Two more such stores are planned in the coming months for Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Revamping all approximately 620 state stores, which are largely utilitarian spaces, will take at least five years, board Executive Director Joe Conti said.

Board officials did not provide an overall price for the redesign. Conti said utility savings and an expected 5 percent to 10 percent increase in sales - because of the nicer environment - would help offset costs.

Hugh Hoffman, 65, of Wycombe, said customers could "hardly walk down the aisles" at the old state store in New Hope. Looking around the spacious new store, he said, "the selection compared to the old one is pretty phenomenal."

But Hoffman also noted the prices on some products were several dollars higher than in neighboring Delaware.

Gina Walker, 52, of Stockton, N.J., said the staff would need to be knowledgeable about pairing wine and food to get her business.

"It'll depend on the help with the wines," Walker said.

The board employs about 140 wine experts statewide, and Conti said officials are working on a civil service waiver that would allow the hiring of more part-time connoisseurs.

But customer service has long been a key issue. The board came under fire last year for spending $174,000 to train employees in retail courtesies such as greeting customers.

On Thursday, Conti said the program has been successful - and a bargain, considering that the agency had budgeted $1 million for it. The board's 4,000 employees have had about two dozen sessions of "very intense, well-developed, retail service training," he said.

A WGAL-TV report last week cited three customer complaints about rude employees at a store in Lemoyne even after the training. Board officials say they are responsive to what little feedback they get, noting they received 1,067 comments on 55 million transactions in 2008-09.

"The PLCB is focused on making every customer experience within our stores, on our toll-free hot line or online, the best it can be, every time," the agency said in a statement Friday. "We leave the issue of privatization to the Legislature and the governor to decide."



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