A customer makes a purchase during a quiet Thursday evening at Downtown Wine & Spirits in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

More than half the staff at Somerville liquor store Downtown Wine & Spirits quit in the first weeks of Covid-19 due to fears of contracting the virus – just as the shop saw an exponential increase in sales.

“When the news started making the rounds back in March, everyone thought it was the end of the world. So they were just buying in bulk, and we made record business,” store manager Mark Epstein said. “In that week, it was just nonstop.”

Employees who continued working in liquor stores doubled their usual shifts to keep up with the requests.

“We were all working 14 or 15 hour days, six or seven days a week, in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Ophir Degany, one of the managers of Ball Square Fine Wines. “Now we’re back to a normal 40-hour week, and everything gets done without losing your mind.”

While sales have leveled out since April, most Somerville liquor stores have received the same, if not better, business since the beginning of the pandemic – an experience unlike millions of small businesses in the United States that have been hit hard by the virus.

“People are at home all day and not going to the office anymore,” Degany said. “I mean, there’s something about online shopping that people do when they are bored, and there’s also something about drinking that people do when they’re bored.”

Assistant clinical director of Boston Alcohol and Substance Abuse Programs Joseph Salgado attributes the uptick in at-home drinking to the increased stress people are facing from job pressures – either losing work or working more hours than expected.

“It just hasn’t been easy for people. So what I’m seeing and hearing is that they just start going right to the alcohol as a stress relief. Before they know it, by the end of the night, they’ve consumed [alcohol],” Salgado said. “Then they realize that they start drinking to help them fall asleep.”

On-site sales are pour

Nearly one-fifth of all Massachusetts restaurants have closed permanently due to the pandemic. This has affected the alcohol industry; on-premise alcohol sales in restaurants and bars represent about 53 percent of alcohol sales. Off-premise businesses are picking up the slack for the industry, but industry experts say there will need to be a 22 percent volume growth in all alcohol categories sold off-premise to level off the impact.

“If anything, we have become much more important to the wholesalers because the restaurant business has gone down, so we have to fill in the gaps,” Degany said.

Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, said that while many businesses have seen a boom, it’s not universal.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about how this is just a gift to liquor stores,” Mellion said. “Some stores in Boston are getting hampered right now because there aren’t college students, or there are very few college students.”

Degany said restaurant closings have not affected business at Ball Square Fine Wines, since Massachusetts prohibits liquor stores from selling to restaurants. But tech and biopharma offices are buying online, taking away that sector of income.

Looking Drizly

Liquor stores saw a boom of online shopping orders through alcohol e-commerce platforms such as Drizly, which saw a 300 percent rise in sales in March. At Ball Square Fine Wines, 90 percent of sales were online at the beginning of the pandemic, and 10 percent in store. Now, it is about even.

“If I was writing a memoir about [working during the beginning of the pandemic], the biggest thing would be how incredibly difficult it was to transition our business on a dime from business as usual to suddenly being an online store and delivery business,” Degany said. “We had no time to adjust.”

One silver lining of the pandemic could be how it forced liquor store owners to modernize their businesses, Mellion said. “Some stores were already connected with Drizly before the pandemic, but many were not,” he said. “Many stores weren’t relying on technology – many stores were quite frankly 20th century – and Drizly allows them to enter into the 21st century with digital retail using the Drizly platform.”

Unlike third-party tech platforms such as Uber Eats or Postmates – which have a reputation for taking large commissions on orders placed with local restaurants – Drizly works alongside vendors. In most cases, stores provide their own delivery drivers to check customers’ identifications and maintain compliance with state and local liquor laws, Mellion said.

“Some third-party options are using DoorDash delivery drivers, but if the third party doesn’t obey the law, that liability falls on the store,” Mellion said. “So many stores now are exercising their authority on that issue, and they’re insisting on doing delivery with their own vehicles.”

Learning curve

Jay Cahill, manager of Proof liquor store in Somerville’s Winter Hill neighborhood. (Photo: Proof via Facebook)

Online ordering was not the only adjustment. Liquor stores also needed to comply with public health ordinances in real time, as scientists updated the public frequently with information about ways the virus can spread. “There was certainly a learning curve, because at the beginning of the pandemic, the rules changed almost daily,” said

Cahill, manager of Proof liquor store in Somerville. “No one knew what to do at the beginning, so there was a lot of anxiety.”

Ball Square Fine Wines initially required all customers to put on gloves before entering, but it has since gotten rid of that rule as more information came out about how the virus spreads. The store – as well as Proof and Downtown Wine & Spirits – is implementing frequent cleaning procedures, mask restrictions and limited occupancy, as well as any other state-required public health measures.

“We’re lucky in the community that we’re in,” Degany said. “For the most part, people in this community understand the situation, and there are always going to be people who are going to make trouble – but that’s definitely a small minority.”

This article was syndicated by the Somerville Wire of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. It was produced by students in professor Gino Canella’s Grassroots Journalism course at Emerson College.

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