When Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board would shut down on March 17, temporarily closing all liquor stores in the state, citizens went out in droves to stock up. News of the impending COVID-19 freeze resulted in the single highest day of sales in over a decade: Pennsylvanians spent just shy of $29.9 million in Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores on March 16 alone. So what was everyone drinking?
It turns out Pennsylvania has pretty basic taste, according to records from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), the entity that regulates all alcohol sales. Since the beginning of 2020, state-run stores, which stock liquor and wine but not beer, sold over $50 million in Barefoot wine, that super-affordable brand with the foot-shaped logo.
Pennsylvania residents are also very committed to vodka. Tito’s, the Texas-based vodka company known for its value and “handmade” branding, has been the No. 1 best-selling item from the PLCB this year, beating out Barefoot brand wines by about $2,000. That’s an especially small margin when you consider that Barefoot sells a wide variety of wines, from bottles of cab to cans of rosé spritzer, but Tito’s catalog is just vodka in different sizes.
In the liquor category, Hennessy (cognac), Jack Daniel’s (whiskey), Crown Royal (whiskey), and Captain Morgan (rum) make up the other top five highest-selling brands. Franzia, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, and Black Box, all affordable, lower-shelf brands, represented the biggest wine sales.
The coronavirus may not have had much of an impact on the brands Pennsylvanians purchase, but it has impacted the quantities bought, evidenced by the almost $29.9 million spent on March 16. On the same day the previous year, the PLCB sold about $3.8 million worth of products. The second-highest day of sales in the last decade was December 31, 2016, when the stores recorded $29.8 million in sales. (That was some seriously last-minute New Year’s Eve shopping.)
The huge bump in March this year was almost enough to make up for the stores being closed the rest of the month: March saw only a 2.4 percent drop in PLCB wine and spirit sales. In April, however, the state lost more than 80 percent of wine and spirit sales, selling about $115 million dollars less that month compared to April 2019.
A limited number of Pennsylvania liquor stores began offering curbside pickup on April 20, but the rollout of online and phone ordering was slow and limited, and sales continued to suffer until in-person shopping resumed in June. May saw about a 34 percent loss over the same month last year; June increased the previous year’s spending by about 3 percent.
The PLCB’s fiscal year starts and ends in June, which means the drop in sales was reported in the board’s recently released 2019–2020 report. That report shows that although the fiscal year’s sales were about $111 million less than 2018–2019, the PLCB’s net income was $17.7 million higher — an almost 10 perfect increase — due to operational changes that lowered costs.
In addition to confirming the state’s drinking tendencies, the PLCB’s sales have an impact on the state budget, since income from the PLCB is contributed to Pennsylvania’s General Fund, which funds schools, public safety initiatives, and other public services. The 2019–2020 contribution to the General Fund totaled about $694 million. It’s too early to tell how the store closures early in the calendar year will impact net income overall for this fiscal year, but whatever happens, one thing is for sure: Pennsylvanians will stock up if there’s a chance they won’t be able to get their chardonnay.