We're answering your questions on the coronavirus at baltimoresun.com/ask. You asked how can a nonessential business owner maintain their shop.
At Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits in Annapolis, business lately has coincided with public announcements by Gov. Larry Hogan.
“Every time the governor stood in front of the microphone, it was like Christmas Eve in here,” owner Dave Marberger, 51, quipped.
As many Marylanders have been heeding Hogan’s stay-at-home order — which followed a previous decision to shut down all nonessential businesses — to combat the spread of the coronavirus, they have sought avenues to quell the occasional sense of cabin fever associated with self-quarantining. And while exercising and binge-watching have risen in popularity, so, too, has imbibing alcoholic beverages.
Marberger and several other owners of area beer and liquor stores said business has been booming. While reluctant to share specific numbers, the owners said they enjoyed a 33 to 50 percent increase in sales in March compared with March 2019 and are seeing similar numbers for the month of April.
“Business volume is extremely brisk, and I feel guilty telling you that with all of the turmoil and layoffs and all of the depressing things going on now,” said Mike Scheuermann, 59, who opened Friendship Wine and Liquor in Bel Air in 1989. “I certainly feel like we’re reaping the benefits from it.”
Owners have equated the surge in sales in the past two months to what they have seen from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.
“We’re doing sales that we would only do in December,” said Mike Fishman, who has owned Canton Crossing in Baltimore for six years. “These are like holiday sales that we would never see in April, which is a fairly slow month. Except for Easter, there’s not usually a whole lot going on except for a few graduation parties. So April would be one of our slower months, and now it’s one of our busiest months.”
The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA), which represents about 1,000 small businesses with alcoholic beverage licenses, applauded Hogan’s decision to allow beer and liquor stores to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This provided members of the public with access to alcoholic beverages while they observe Stay at Home directives,” the group said in a written statement. “Reports from members suggest that sales at package stores substantially increased from mid-March through early April, but it is too early to confirm any statewide sales data or trends.”
Some of the more popular items being sold are 24- and 30-packs of beer and boxed wines as customers have become wary about spending too much and are settling for brand names over premium brands.
“The quality of boxed wine is vastly better today than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago,” said Marberger, who added that one of his regular customers upped his usual order of five 30-packs of beer to 15. “It’s always more economical per fluid ounce. And if you know that you’re going to need a glass of wine or two a night and you were truly going to self-quarantine yourself in your house, a boxed wine is a logical choice.”
Fishman said consumers are opting for Tito’s vodka instead of Grey Goose because of the $10 difference and Bulleit Bourbon over Maker’s Mark for the $4 difference.
“I think people are being a little more price-sensitive,” he said.
Scheuermann said he has noticed customers buying more items in one trip to avoid returning to the store to restock.
“I think it’s the same panic that people experience at the grocery stores,” he said. “I think there’s a nervous tendency to buy too much milk and too much toilet paper, and it’s the same thing. They come in here, and they don’t know when they’re going to come back out or if they’re going to come back out. They’re definitely buying in bulk. Cases of wine instead of one or two bottles, that’s happened very frequently.”
While the uptick in business is a positive sign for an economy that has been depleted by coronavirus fears, Dr. Christopher Welsh, the medical director of the University of Maryland Medical Center Substance Abuse Consultation, said there is a potential dark side.
“I think part of the concern is with so many people working from home and only being on camera for part of the day, they’re going to be drinking when they wouldn’t be if they were in the office for a full eight-hour day,” said Welsh, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the university’s School of Medicine. “They may not be intoxicated, but it’s hard to know how much even being a little bit disinhibited might affect one’s decision-making. I don’t know if there’s a financial adviser making decisions on people’s 401Ks. I’m not saying that they’re drunk, but even after a couple drinks, it can still affect your thinking. So that’s a concern.”
While foot traffic is still permitted into Scheuermann’s store in Bel Air, which offers face shields to customers and employees and sanitizes all door handles and countertops daily, Marberger and Fishman have closed their stores and are accepting only online and phone orders for curbside pickup and delivery. To accommodate the surge in orders, the owners have hired former restaurant employees who were laid off.
“We do a great job with what we do, but we got our asses kicked from March 27 until this past Friday,” said Marberger, who added four employees from a restaurant he and his family had frequented before it closed. “So we had to make a change. We had to do something.”
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
The MSLBA noted that other beer and liquor stores have bought gift cards from neighboring small businesses and bought meals for unemployed workers.
“In short, our package store members appreciate that they have been able to remain in business and keep their employees on the payroll,” the organization said. “They are paying it forward, recognizing that their bar and restaurant colleagues have not been so fortunate.”
Welsh, the University of Maryland doctor and professor, said one positive of Hogan’s stay-at-home order is that there has been a sizable reduction in the number of alcohol-related car and boat accidents. But he reemphasized that there is a good reason many health experts have recommended a one-to-two-drink maximum per day.
“We’re just trying to remind people that always in moderation,” he said.
With no apparent end in sight to self-quarantining in the state, Scheuermann said he expects the current state of business for beer and liquor stores to continue as status quo.