Liquor sales continue climb

State estimates 2-percent hike; Post Falls store is No. 1 in sales

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Patrons pick up supplies for the holiday weekend at the liquor store Friday on Seltice Way in Post Falls. According to the Idaho State Liquor Division, the store is the top-selling location out of 168 total sites in the state.

POST FALLS - The doors of the state liquor store on Seltice Way next to the White House Grill may as well have just been kept propped open on Friday.

The store was that busy.

Sure, it was on the brink of a holiday weekend, but it also accentuated that the store now has the title of the top-selling hard liquor store in the state out of 168 total sites (state-owned and contractors), overtaking a location in Boise.

"(Washington Governor) Chris Gregoire is Idaho's best friend," said Buzz Everett of Spokane after he made a purchase at the store. "It's about being cheaper over here and this is the closest store for us.

"Look at the parking lot - Washington, Washington, Washington ... ."

Indeed, Washington plates outnumbered Idaho's by about five to one.

Everett said he pays $11.80 for a bottle of cinnamon whisky in Idaho versus $17 in Washington.

"In Washington, everything is so taxed that we have to run to Idaho for our cigarettes and booze," said Mike Smith of Spokane.

Sales at the Post Falls store are expected to be about $5 million for the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, said Jeff Anderson, director of the Idaho State Liquor Division. The amount represents about a 10-percent jump from the year before.

Statewide, liquor sales are up about 2 percent, according to preliminary state data. Sales climbed from $135.8 million to about $137.8 million this past year.

The increase continues an upward swing and sets another record, but is toned down compared to double-digit growth of some recent years. Sales increased about 42 percent from about $94 million in 2005 to $135.8 million in 2009.

"The increase is much lower than it had been in five years," said Anderson, adding that the increase is what was expected. "What we've seen is that the total product moving hasn't changed considerably - it may be up a bit - but people are trading down from premium to popular or value-priced products because of the economy.

"People had more money in their pockets in '06, '07 and '08 and were choosing premium brands."

Anderson called the increase "organic growth" that occurred naturally due mostly to the slight population increase.

Case sales are up 2.3 percent and per capita consumption is flat compared to the year before at .8 cases per adult per year, ranking Idaho in the middle of states in which hard liquor sales are controlled by the state.

Anderson said he doesn't believe the continued rough economy is driving people to drinking any more than before.

"We have no evidence of that," he said.

Anderson said he estimates about $46 million from liquor sales will be returned to cities, counties, drug courts and schools - about a $1 million more than last year.

Brent Layton of Post Falls said that's a good thing and makes weaving in and out of Spokane shoppers worth it.

"Sometimes I feel like a minority coming in here, but if it helps the communities out, I'll gladly put up with it," he said.

He said his buying in the past year shadows the trends - buying cheaper brands, but not drinking more.

"I'm just doing what I can to save a buck, but still trying to drink in moderation," Layton said.

Anderson said Idaho is watching two Washington measures that would privatize spirits sales and go on the November ballot closely, but he doesn't believe Idaho sales will plummet if they pass.

"It's not likely that sales will go way down," Anderson said, adding that Idaho's uniform pricing across the state should still be competitive or lower than Washington prices. "But it remains to be seen."

One measure, supported by Costco, would turn the sale of all liquor over to private stores, allowing businesses that sell beer and wine to also sell hard liquor. It also would eliminate state price controls and allow volume discounts. Additionally, retailers could buy liquor directly from manufacturers.

The other proposal would allow private sales but also keep state protections for private wholesalers.

Smith agreed with Anderson in that Idaho doesn't have much to worry about with the measures.

"You won't lose a penny - I guarantee it," he said.

Idaho and Washington are among 20 states in which the state controls hard liquor sales. Liquor is not sold late at night, early in the morning and, in most cases, on Sundays.

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