Supermarkets now operate seven of the 13 state liquor agencies in Stark County.
It was almost 10:30 a.m. on New Year's Eve and the line at Northeast Beverage was four customers deep and growing.
Under a poster of Billie Holiday, owner Cornel Milan greeted customers at the counter and rang up their bottles of Jägermeister, Hennessy, vodka and tequila.
Tucked into the former Kroger plaza at 1249 Harrisburg Road NE, Northeast Beverage is a classic neighborhood liquor store.
"I know most of them by name," Milan said of his patrons. "After 19 years in this business, you get to know your customer base pretty good."
BREAD, MILK, BOOZE
Increasingly, small, independent liquor stores are being replaced by large supermarkets.
With the opening of a liquor store at the Alliance Giant Eagle on Nov. 26, supermarkets now operate seven of Stark County's 13 liquor stores.
Nate Filler is president and CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, a group that represents more than 400 food industry retailers, wholesalers, brokers and suppliers.
"The No. 1 call I get into my office from the retailers is they're interested in any availability of state agency liquor permits or a liquor store," Filler said.
At this point it's worth noting how liquor is sold in Ohio.
The state has a monopoly on alcohol over 42 proof, and sells it to bars, restaurants and the public through private businesses called liquor agencies that get a cut of the sales — 4 percent on wholesale and 6 percent on retail.
The state Division of Liquor Control decides how many liquor agencies it wants, where to put them and what items to stock.
A store can buy out the contract of an existing liquor agency, but the state has the final say over transfers, said Matt Mullins, division spokesman. Shelving space, parking and location are important factors.
"We're looking to serve our customers where we need to," Mullins said. "It doesn't do any good to have agencies all over the place cannibalizing each other's sales."
Acquiring a liquor agency is a way for supermarkets to diversify their offerings and attract more customers.
"It's about the convenience factor," Filler said.
Giant Eagle's acquisition of the Alliance agency gives it five liquor stores in the county and 50 across the state, according to a count of state records.
In a written statement, Giant Eagle said the Alliance liquor store builds on an "already strong beer and wine offering" and increases customer convenience.
"Consumer attitudes are now strongly supporting this," said Filler, who expects to see more grocery stores enter the liquor business.
"I think it's here to stay, and I think it's just going to be a matter of convenience," he said. "The winners in this will be the folks that can give the consumers what they want with good customer service, all in a one-stop experience."
Kulmeet Bhullar co-owns Phil's Wine Boutique, a small liquor store on 12th Street NW in Canton.
"Whoever lives close by to us, they'll still come to us," Bhullar said.
But Phil's has lost customers to supermarket liquor agencies because it can't take credit cards without passing the fee on to customers or undercutting its revenue, he said.
On a $5 pint, the store makes 30 cents. A 3 percent credit card fee cuts the margin in half.
Supermarkets can afford to take credit cards because they make money on other items, said Bhullar, who predicts that independent stores will eventually disappear.
"They're buying everybody out," he said of supermarkets.
Milan, at Northeast Beverage, is more hopeful.
His customers don't have a problem paying cash, and some people don't want to buy alcohol at the same place they get groceries, he said.
"I think you'll always have some independents," Milan said. "I think it will end up half and half."
Mullins said the state wants the best places for its customers to get the products they want, whether that's a supermarket or a small shop.
"There are very good agencies that are just liquor stores," he said. "It really just depends on the area and the store and the management. There isn't anything inherently better in the one type or the other."
Reach Shane at 330-580-8338 or on Twitter: @shooverREP