Pennsylvania Removes Wine Kiosks

Liquor Board ends vending experiment in grocery stores after 15 months

by Linda Jones McKee
pennsylvania wine kiosk
Andrew Breining of Camp Hill, Pa., used a kiosk to buy wine soon after the devices debuted in Pennsylvania stores. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board recently decided to discontinue them. Photos by Linda Jones McKee.
Harrisburg, Pa.—In June 2010, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board opened two “wine kiosks” in grocery stores outside Harrisburg and announced plans to expand the program to as many as 100 stores. By this summer, kiosks were operating in 21 stores across the state. Joe Conti, CEO of the PLCB, described the kiosk project as “a great attempt to try to do something for the convenience of our customers.”

In just over a year, though, the experiment has ended. On Sept. 20, the PLCB ended the program after the manufacturer of the kiosks, Simple Brands LLC of Conshohocken, Pa., failed to make a payment of more than $1 million that was due Sept. 19.

Under the contract between the PLCB and Simple Brands, the company was to provide the machines at no cost to the state, but would share in the proceeds. The PLCB claims it was to be compensated for its expenses in maintaining the kiosks. Simple Brands contends the state agency has improperly billed the company and is seeking $81 million from the PLCB for breach of contract.

The kiosks—oversized vending machines that dispensed wine bottles after a customer presented identification to verify age, passed a Breathalyzer test and paid by credit card—had been plagued with mechanical problems and customer complaints. In December 2010, during the peak season for wine sales, the LCB shut down all kiosks across the state because of problems in making the machines work consistently.

On May 31, 2011, Wegmans, a grocery store chain with 10 wine kiosks throughout the state, ended its participation in the vending machine program, citing ongoing customer complaints about the kiosks. In August, Walmart decided against installing 23 kiosks in its stores.

Glimmers of hope
While the wine kiosk experiment failed to meet the goals of selection and convenience, Pennsylvania wine consumers have a few glimmers of hope that the PLCB may slowly be relaxing the tight control of wine, beer and spirits it has exercised since the end of Prohibition. In order to make shopping more convenient to consumers, the LCB has opened wine shops in about 20 supermarkets.

Approximately 80 grocery stores across the state have purchased restaurant licenses that permit them to sell six packs of beer or glasses of wine or beer to customers at in-store cafes. House majority leader Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny County, introduced a bill to privatize the state stores. That legislation would allow supermarkets and others to buy wholesale licenses and sell wine directly to consumers. 

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