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Wegmans nixes LCB wine kiosks

Jim Seibert and Kortney Zerphy ponder the wine selection at a Wegmans in Mechanicsburg. The dispensing area is equipped with a breath analyzer. (EVAN TROWBRIDGE / Staff)
Jim Seibert and Kortney Zerphy ponder the wine selection at a Wegmans in Mechanicsburg. The dispensing area is equipped with a breath analyzer. (EVAN TROWBRIDGE / Staff)Read more

HARRISBURG - Wegmans Food Markets has decided to pull out of the state's oft-criticized wine-kiosk program, dealing a major blow to the state Liquor Control Board's latest effort to operate more like a private business.

In a statement today, the supermarket chain said: "We had hoped that our customers would find the kiosks to be a valuable addition to their shopping experience, but that proved not to be the case. They want the convenience of purchasing wine in a supermarket, but found the choice of items too limited in the kiosk.

"Also, our customers rely upon the knowledgeable, personalized service our employees provide every day, but that is something that an automated kiosk just cannot provide. The kiosks just did not fit well with our store environment."

Wegmans markets house 10 out of the board's 32 kiosks statewide.

Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the Liquor Control Board, said Wegmans notified the agency earlier this week that it intended to pull out of the program. Wegmans gave a 30-day notice, but offered to be flexible about the date.

It is not yet clear whether the kiosks will be moved to other stores. The private company Simple Brands owns the machines and will have to remove them.

"We were hopeful at the launch of the program that we were finding new and innovative ways to bring convenience and selection to our customers. Certainly, our focus is the customer every time. We want to make sure we are doing things that people will embrace."

Over the last few years, the liquor board has embarked on an aggressive strategy to operate more like a private business and less like a bureaucracy. The agency has spent tens of thousands of dollars to spiff up stores, boost its wine selection, and train its employees to be more customer-friendly. It has also opened upscale stores to cater to a more discriminating crowd.

Then there is the kiosk program.

It was launched last summer as a way to make it easier for consumers to do one-stop shopping: pick up their bottle of wine while at the grocery store.

But there have been problems.

First off, it took some time for shoppers to get used to purchasing wines from a machine that scanned their driver's licenses and made them blow into a Breathalyzer.

Then, just as customers were getting acclimated, the LCB abruptly shut the kiosks down last year right before Christmas - and the big holiday booze rush. The reason: mechanical problems (such as kiosks that took your money but failed to jettison your Merlot). The shutdown prompted state Auditor General Jack Wagner to launch an audit of how the kiosks are working and how much money they were making for the state. The results aren't in.

Since then, consumer confidence in the kiosks has lagged, along with sales in some spots.

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