Liquor store little guys fight proposed license increase

Total Wine opened its only Charleston-area store in 2005 on Ashley River Road in West Ashley. The Maryland-based chain supports legislation that would increase the number of licenses that liquor businesses can hold in South Carolina. Buy this photo

Ask almost any Lowcountry liquor store owner about S.C. Senate Bill 404, and you’re likely to get the same reaction.

“I think if it happens it’s going to destroy the little man,” Joe Forsberg, who owns the pair of Forsberg’s Wine & Spirits stores on Folly Road, said Monday. “That’s Total Wine trying to monopolize the liquor industry.”

“I think they’re trying to put small businessmen out of business,” said Joe Villeponteaux who owns Carpe Diem Wine & Spirits in Mount Pleasant. “I think it’s wrong.”

The legislation, up for debate today in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would increase from three to seven the number of retail liquor-store licenses a business could have.

Forsberg, Villeponteaux and other small-business owners say the change means big-box retailers, including Total Wine & More, will open new stores, driving out smaller retailers. Forsberg and Hilton Head liquor store owner John Kelsey said it’s part of Total Wine’s business strategy is to enter a market and sell liquor at or below cost.

“If this passes, Total Wine will have seven (licenses.) Walmart will have seven. Costco will have seven,” said Kelsey, president of the ABC Stores of South Carolina, a trade group that represents the state’s liquor stores that are fighting the legislation. “It will shift from small, locally owned businesses to the big boxes.”

David Trone, co-owner of Total Wine, the national chain that operates about 90 wine superstores in 14 states, said the legislation is a great way to increase competition and give consumers the best product for less.

“The only people not backing it are competitors. Consumers love it,” Trone said.

If the bill passes, Trone said his company is interested in expanding beyond its three current locations in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, although it’s too early to say where the stores would be.

Forsberg, who worked in a liquor store before opening his own in 1986, said he heard those places would be Mount Pleasant, Myrtle Beach, and another store each in Columbia and Greenville.

Trone thinks smaller liquor stores could stay in business, too.

“The smaller stores sell to the local clientele, and they can offer highly personalized service,” he said. “We have mom-and-pops that operate down the street from us all over the country.”

Villeponteaux, who opened Carpe Diem in the Patriots Plaza Shopping Center 18 months ago, said he’s concerned a Total Wine in his neighborhood could spell the end.

“If they’re going to put me out of business, they need to compensate me for my investment,” Villeponteaux, 55, said before hanging up to discuss his quandary with his 84-year-old father.

Kelsey said the “free market” argument carries little weight. The state already heavily regulates liquor stores, making it difficult to compete, he said.

“If you want to have free competition, let’s deregulate the industry,” he said, noting he can’t be open on Sunday, can’t deliver liquor, can’t sell to someone under 21 and more. “It’s tough, particularly on the small businesses, because of all the regulation.”

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, would vote on the bill should it win approval and advance to the Senate floor. Davis said Monday he would attend the meeting to hear the two sides make their cases.

“I oppose state interference in free-market activities unless regulation is necessary to prevent public harm,” Davis said. “I don’t serve on the Judiciary Committee but will attend this meeting to hear advocates make their case.”

Villeponteaux wrote a letter to the senators on the committee last week pleading his case and said he got Sen. Larry Martin’s word that he would not support the bill.

“He being the chairman, hopefully he will have a little bit more voice in the Senate,” Villeponteaux said.



Gina Smith of The Island Packet contributed to this story.

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