HARRISBURG - State liquor-store clerks kindly wish to inform you that they will say "hello" when you walk through the door, help you out when you need it, and remember to say "thank you" and "come again."

At least they will once training begins.

Starting this month, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is spending more than $170,000 on a charm school of sorts for its 4,000 employees.

It is the latest offensive in the system's multimillion-dollar effort to reshape its image from unfriendly government bureaucracy to state-of-the-art retailer, complete with snazzy stores and employees who smile a lot.

"This is part of the renaissance of the Liquor Control Board," said Joe Conti, its chief executive. "The point is to become a specialty retailer and not be known as a government monopoly."

Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg activist and founder of RockTheCapital.org, politely called the idea "a demented interpretation of happy hour."

"It's a sad state of affairs when you have to train people to be kind and courteous," he said, "but I guess things are so bad that even booze peddlers have to pretend to be nice."

Ron Huff, 50, a welder from Southwest Philadelphia who was shopping for wine last week at the liquor store at 1218 Chestnut St., agreed that setting aside money for more training "doesn't make sense" - but for a different reason.

"It probably wouldn't make much of a difference," he said. "Folks don't spend that much time in there."

Conti and others at the LCB said they expected the criticism - and didn't mind it, thank you very much.

They said the outcome would be well worth the investment and contended that clerks were the ones most excited about the prospect of improving their game.

That was why the board hired Solutions 21, a Pittsburgh consulting firm, under a $173,820 contract for the coming year. The first step will be to teach store managers in the next few weeks how to coach their staffers in the fundamentals of being good sales reps.

The managers will then venture into each of the 620 stores and instruct clerks on how to greet someone, where to stand, and how to read a customer's cues.

And how a simple "thank you, please come back" can go a long way toward leaving a good impression.

"It may seem intuitive," LCB chairman Patrick J. "P.J." Stapleton III said, "but the reality is that, in stores around the country, customer service is inconsistent and uneven."

The state's liquor stores, whether they deserve it or not, have an image problem. Customers have long complained about clerks in some stores who are unresponsive and unappreciative of their business.

Lori Burgess, 43, a Center City resident who stopped at the liquor store at 1913 Chestnut, said she knew that some employees had "a reputation for not being as helpful."

Government agencies across the country, including Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections, are prepping their workers. Tomorrow, an executive of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. L.L.C. will give about 50 L&I employees a free crash course on customer service.

For now, at least, the Liquor Control Board's clerks will not receive "product training," or technical knowledge on wines and spirits. That will come under a separate program, after they have learned the basics of courtesy.

Not that all customers think store workers have an attitude problem.

Jean Harte, 48, of Plymouth Meeting, said she had never felt she wasn't "a priority" while shopping for wine.

"I am always treated very nicely," Harte said last week at a wine-and-spirits store in Conshohocken.

And Harte is sensitive to these things. As a business owner, she's a stickler for customer service.

So is the training really necessary?

"What I say to the skeptical," said Buddy Hobart, president of Solutions 21, "to those of us in the world who believe we've arrived and don't need to improve: Look up the word arrogant in the dictionary."

Added the LCB's Conti: "This is a vast adventure, and it's one we have to take. We know some people will critique us, but we like that. It only makes us better."

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.
Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Bonnie L. Cook, Marcia Gelbart, and Zoe Tillman.