Earlier this year, the state of Pennsylvania announced plans to sell wine through vending machines, throwing an olive branch to residents who have complained for years about high prices and poor selection at the Keystone State's 625 liquor stores. Unfortunately, though, the automated bottle purveyors have turned out to be a dismal failure.
The self-service wine kiosks, which were supposed to provide consumers safe, one-stop shopping, are not working properly and officials at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) are not exactly sure why. On Dec. 21, the board was forced to temporarily shut down the 30 machines, which come equipped with their own breathalyzers, based at supermarkets around the state. Previously, Pennsylvania only allowed wine to be sold in State Stores.State officials said they were confident that the machines -- run by a private company at no cost to taxpayers -- would be running again early next year. No date was specified. The contractor, Simple Brands L.L.C. of Conshohocken, Pa., earns a profit from the machines by selling ads on them. Simple Brands couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
"While customer satisfaction with the six-month-old kiosk program remains high, recent problems -- such as product not dispensing -- require us to take immediate action while we wait for the manufacturer to correct all of the identified issues," said Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Chairman Patrick J. "PJ" Stapleton in a press release.
The PLCB, one the largest buyers of wines in the U.S, expected to encounter some technical glitches with the kiosks because they are new, but was surprised by the number of problems that they had and their durations, according to Stacey Witalec, a PLCB spokeswoman. Some critics argue that the kiosks, which had been already delayed by a year, were a bad idea and should be scrapped.
"They never worked right," says Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, in an interview, who argues that a private company shouldn't have so much access to the personal information of consumers. "The state's wine drinkers are guinea pigs."
Even though the state is a huge wine buyer, Wallace said the selection and prices of the vintages at State Stores is so bad that many people who are able to make their purchases out of state do so. Making wine sales more convenient through kiosks does little to solve that problem.
To buy wine, a customer inserts his or her driver's license into the kiosk, which analyzes information from the the bar code and matches the photograph on the driver's license to a video image of the buyer at the machine. A PLCB employee will also monitor each transaction remotely to make sure that the buyer in the video matches the ID. The transactions are supposed to take about 20 seconds.
"Buying wine is not like buying socks," Wallace says. "Wines (in State Stores) are overpriced and generic. It's depressing."
The State Store system began 77 years ago in the waning days of Prohibition. The governor at the time, Gifford Pinchot, reportedly wanted to make consuming alcohol as inconvenient and expensive as possible. That vision did not last and governors for more than 30 years have vowed the abolish the independent PLCB.
This week, State Auditor General Jack Wagner is opening an investigation, saying in a press release that "The kiosks' breakdown during the height of the holiday shopping season has left customers high and dry, and we want to know why." Incoming Governor Tom Corbett also backs selling the State Stores. A Corbett spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Wallace and other critics argue that the state should stick to what it does best, like collecting taxes, and leave retailing to the professionals. A handful of other states also operate liquor stores.
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