ABC store

NED OLIVER/THE VIRGINIA MERCURY

Sales have been booming at ABC stores, which the state considers to be essential businesses, during the coronavirus pandemic.

RICHMOND—At some point in the near future, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority is hoping to execute the first home liquor delivery in its 86-year history.

Just like other retailers adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, the state-run liquor monopoly has been exploring options to get its products to customers with minimal human-to-human contact.

It started with curbside pickup, a service now available at most of the agency’s 388 stores. And if all goes according to plan, next-day delivery is on the way later this year.

The agency is in the final stages of developing a pilot delivery program that will be launched through an ABC store in Suffolk. The pilot was scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon, but officials were still working through some technical issues Thursday evening.

The test—which will begin with a soft launch before an official announcement—will cover a 25-mile radius around the ABC store at the Bennett’s Creek Crossing Shopping Center.

Travis Hill, ABC’s chief executive officer, said the limited trial run will help the agency fine-tune the system so it’s not overwhelmed in the rollout to the wider drinking public.

“We have to make sure that we don’t create a scenario where we’re just completely snowed under by folks who are used to ordering from Amazon. We’re not there yet,” Hill told members of ABC Board during a virtual meeting Thursday. “But I think we have really shown the strength of our retail team, our development team working together to get that solution going forward.”

To get through the crisis, ABC has already allowed licensees to deliver wine and beer. Restaurants are also allowed to offer to-go cocktails.

The agency’s goal is to get liquor deliveries going in populous areas that have been most impacted by the pandemic, where people may still be avoiding trips to brick-and-mortar stores for fear of the virus.

If the two-week pilot goes well, Hill said in an interview, the more high-demand regions of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads could see a home delivery option “in the next few months.” Other areas could follow after that.

“We have to make sure that it works,” Hill said.

Technically, ABC’s upcoming liquor deliveries won’t be the state’s first.

As part of a broader loosening of alcohol regulations during the crisis, the agency recently allowed Virginia distilleries to ship their products directly to in-state customers. That option has proven to be massively popular, ABC officials said, with some distilleries reporting their delivery business is outpacing what they sold through their tasting rooms in pre-coronavirus times.

While the private sector got the deliveries flowing, the development of ABC’s own at-home shipping system will allow a much larger selection of spirits to be sent directly to customers.

“One of the things that we’ve been concerned about is having distillery stores do something that we don’t currently do,” Hill said. “Having us step into the field of direct-to-consumer shipping aligns our stores with these distillery stores.”

Hill said home delivery was a concept ABC was already exploring, but the pandemic and its accompanying uncertainty forced officials to move the project to the top of their priority list.

“I felt like this was one of those things we needed to do,” Hill said. “Because the downside of not having it available and something going wrong was just so tremendous in terms of having to close the business.”

Paul Williams, ABC’s chief information officer, said the trickiest part is building in the functionality to resolve shipping mistakes, such as missing bottles or Jim Beam being delivered to a customer who wanted Jack Daniel’s.

“We will have to do some work to make it capable of rolling to the whole fleet,” Williams said.

To get things up and running sooner, the agency is planning to use a common carrier approach to shipping, meaning UPS will handle the packages.

During Thursday’s meeting, Tom Lisk, a lobbyist who works on alcohol issues for the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, said ABC shouldn’t stop at curbside pickup and next-day delivery. Like Amazon and Walmart, he said, the goal should be same-day delivery and “more immediate consumer satisfaction.”

“So much for delayed gratification,” joked ABC board Chairwoman Maria Everett.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, nonpartisan online news outlet based in Richmond covering state government and policy.

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