Local and statewide liquor prices remain nearly 20 percent higher three months after Washington’s privatization measure took effect, and no one seems to know when — or if — they’ll come down.
In the Longview-Kelso area, the average composite price of a 750-milliliter bottle of spirits was $25.42, about 18 percent higher from May when state-run stores were last open, according to a Daily News survey this week. This month’s prices are also about 10 percent up from June, when private stores first began selling liquor.
The price increases are a direct result of the state’s 10 percent distribution and 17 percent retail fees included in Initiative 1183, which Washington voters approved by a wide margin last November. The state also collects a 20.5 percent liquor sales tax and $3.77 per liter tax. The measure took effect June 1 and increased taxes to make up for lost revenue for education, road maintenance and other public works when the state handed over liquor sales to private hands for the first time since the Prohibition Era.
This week, The Daily News surveyed prices of five brands — Jack Daniel’s whiskey, Captain Morgan rum, Skyy vodka, Tanqueray gin and Jose Cuervo tequila — sold at four grocery stores and two liquor stores in Longview. A similar survey was conducted at the Rainier Liquor Store, where the composite price was about 30 percent lower, at $19.15.
Foot traffic has risen by 20 to 30 percent and sales have run $2,000 per day higher this summer primarily from customers across the state line, Rainier store officials said. Prices are set by the state of Oregon and have not changed in three months.
“Our customers are always joking that there’s no Oregon plates in our parking lot,” said Sammy Carlson, Rainier Liquor Store assistant manager.
In Washington, prices are roughly where state officials expected after three months, but they said its too soon to forecast future prices accurately.
“We don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s too soon to tell,” said Mike Gowrylow, spokesman for the state’s Department of Revenue, which tracks liquor sales to collect taxes.
In The Daily News’ survey, prices varied from store to store, sometimes dramatically. For example, a fifth of Tanquery gin at G3 Liquors in the Triangle Center cost $29.99, the cheapest of the six stores by two or three dollars. However, a fifth of Skyy vodka at the same store was the priciest, at $24.99.
Most stores still only list the retail price, then tack on the taxes, which add $7 to $9 at the register. However, G3 and Boondox Liquor — the two Longview stores formerly run by the state — list the sales price at the register to avoid sticker shock for customers, officials at both stores said.
Wauna Khlee, G3’s manager, said the store has been mixing up its sales among different popular brands to stay competitive. With more than 1,500 brands, G3 also has a larger selection than the big-box stores, he said.
“We try to pick out key items (for sales), ones that we know are going to sell,” Khlee said.
G3 is also installing a cooler to sell beer and is expanding its selection of snacks, he said.
Boondox Liquor has also expanded beyond liquor, adding beer, wine, snacks and tobacco products, said employee Rup Brar, whose father, Dave Brar, owns the business.
Under privatization, business “went up, and it went down again,” Brar said.
Statewide, prices this July were 16.2 percent higher than they were in July last year, under the old state-run system, according to the Department of Revenue. Still, those July prices were down modestly from June, right after privatization took effect, but no one knows if the trend will continue.
Total spirts sales statewide also bounced back in July after a big slump in June, likely because bars and restaurants has built large inventories before I-1183 took effect and needed to restock, Gowrylow said.
Without making predictions, Gowrylow noted that rising sales could eventually work to bring prices down. However, he added that sales figures could also drop in coming months as the novelty of buying spirits at a grocery store wears off.
Editor's note (Sept. 14): A previous version of this story did not mention the 10 percent distribution fee and 17 percent retail fee imposed by I-1183 that also are included in liquor prices.