Washington state has been out of the liquor business for around five months, and in that time private retailers have discovered some challenges in keeping the once state-controlled product from disappearing off store shelves.
KIRO Radio reported earlier this month that liquor theft is a major problem across the state, but it turns out the issue is much worse than originally thought.
There are a few stores that lost up to $30,000 worth of liquor in just the first three months of privatization.
“In the first three months, it was anywhere from $30,000 up to $50,000,” Jana Jorgensen in the Seattle City Attorney’s office said. “Now I’m hearing it can be from $500 to $1,000 a day just walking out of the store.” And that’s at multiple stores all over the region.
Jorgensen said a dedicated city attorney and SPD officer are focused on retail theft, and they have turned their attention to liquor theft. She said King County has so many cases it can’t prosecute them and won’t until the theft amount is over a $1,000.
Jorgensen said store managers don’t know what to do. Some want to make changes, but their corporate bosses won’t let them.
“Some stores are saying, ‘Well the losses aren’t great enough for corporate to step in and do something yet,'” she said, though she knows of one, Albertson’s that is moving its liquor behind the service counter, but that’s at only one of its locations.
One of the big questions I’ve had in all of this is where is all this liquor going?
I’ve heard rumors of guys approaching people in parking lots and asking if they need cheap liquor, and Jorgensen confirmed that.
“I talked to one of the loss prevention officers who actually went undercover and found a bunch of his own product in this guy’s trunk, and as he’s walking away this other guy says ‘Hey did you get what you want because if you didn’t I’m going back in that store again. I hit them everyday.'”
But that’s a one or two bottle transaction.
What Jorgensen believes is driving this is bars and restaurants who don’t want to pay the high taxes on liquor, and they’re stocking their shelves with boosted booze.
“I think that’s the reason why they’re seeing a lot of that high-end that’s going because there’s a demand for it from the restaurants, the nightclubs and the bars,” she said. “Those are the types of alcohol that they want.” That’s why high-end vodka and whiskey is flying off store shelves.
So what to do about this?
We’ve reported at length about stores changing their policies by locking up the liquor or adding security, but most of the big chains don’t appear ready to do that. It’s against company policy or would cost too much.
But Jorgensen believes it will be the Legislature that will have to step in to force some changes.
“The state counted on a lot of this tax money to fund programs, and they’re losing that every time a bottle of liquor walks out the door,” she said. “Maybe the Legislature would need to come in and set policies for these stores if they’re unwilling to do it themselves.”
If Jorgensen’s numbers are right, that means $1000 a day, that’s $365,000 in losses for the year, and that’s one store. At some point, the losses are going to be too big to dismiss.