Mississippi liquor stores had a tough time staying fully stocked last holiday season, and this year it will probably be even more difficult, according to a Madison liquor store owner.

“Right now if I put in an order and should get next day delivery, it’s nine to 10 business days before I get the order,” said Scott Jackson, owner of Colony Wine Market in Madison and past president of the Mississippi Independent Package Stores Association.

“That is due almost entirely to the state’s distribution center being underfunded.”

The state has not increased funds for the operation of the Alcoholic Beverage Control warehouse in Gluckstadt in 25 years, despite the number of orders rising through the years, Jackson said.

The ABC shipped 4.1 million cases in fiscal year 2021 compared to 3.7 million cases in fiscal year 2020 and 3.3 million cases in fiscal year 2019. The onset of the global coronavirus pandemic saw orders skyrocket as many Mississippians turned to wine and other alcoholic drinks.

 Liquor stores rely on getting shipments of product in a timely manner several days a week from the state-run warehouse because most stores lack the space to keep a large backstock and state law prohibits a liquor store owner from storing wine and liquor in a rented warehouse, Jackson said.

Meg Bartlett, associate commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Revenue, which operates the warehouse, said the ABC is currently shipping product within two weeks of the order date.

The ABC employs 132 employees, of which 32 work in the administrative offices and 100 in the warehouse, she said. The starting pay for ABC warehouse workers is $25,063.59 per year, which amounts to about $12 per hour.

At the very least, the state should fund additional employees for the warehouse so it can operate 24/7, Jackson said.

“If they just had enough employees, they could get the product out,” he said. “Then it will make more money for the state and they could look at expanding the warehouse or maybe opening on the coast and one in north Mississippi.”

District 25 Sen. J. Walter Michel expects the state will face greater difficulty hiring and keeping positions filled at the ABC warehouse after the Amazon fulfillment center opens in Madison County.

“It’s going to get tougher and tougher because Amazon is trying to hire 1,500 workers at the new facility and it will pay $18 an hour,” he said.

Michel contends legislation could solve some of the problems without having to expand the size of the warehouse or hire additional employees.

He has introduced in several legislative sessions a bill that would allow grocery stores to sell wine with a higher alcohol content than what they already sell and another bill that would let wineries direct ship product to consumers, grocery stores and liquor stores. 

Michel said he plans on introducing those two bills during the 2022 session so that when the Senate Finance Committee meets it can consider them instead of focusing its attention on expanding the size of the ABC warehouse.

Allowing wineries to direct ship to consumers, grocery stores and liquor stores would reduce the number of cases of wine that are directed through the ABC warehouse and that would be beneficial in several ways, Michel said.

“A lot of wines have to be temperature controlled or they will ruin,” he said. “Direct shipping to consumers, grocery stores and liquor stores from wineries would relieve the state’s burden to have temperature-controlled warehouse space. 

“It would get the state out of the middle of distribution. You have to have someone unload product at the warehouse and into smaller trucks that have to run up and down the state of Mississippi roads to retailers. There is the opportunity for a warehouse worker to drop a case of wine, for which the state is on the hook. If a winery ships to a location, it’s on the hook if the case breaks.”

The state would not lose any money by allowing a winery to direct ship to consumers, grocery stores or liquor stores, Michel said. A winery would register with the state and remit the amount due in tax directly to Department of Revenue, he said.  

Michel said he would not be surprised if Walmart and Kroger join for an initiative to place the sale of wine in grocery stores on the ballot. “It won’t take them long to get signatures on the ballot,” he said.

Privatizing the operation of the ABC warehouse has come up in previous legislative sessions, but that issue has not gained favor because it included a tax increase on wine and liquor to cover the money the state makes off the warehouse, Jackson said.

“That’s dead in the water,” Jackson said. “Mississippians are paying enough tax and a price increase will drive them across the state line (to buy liquor). Mississippians are going to be completely against a tax increase on wine and spirits.”

Liquor store owners can do little to remedy the situation other than “put pressure on our legislators to fix this problem by giving a budget increase to the ABC,” Jackson said.

Jackson knows he and other liquor store owners will face a challenge keeping their shelves full during their busiest season, which is from the week of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

“If I completely stocked my store and stacked stuff up in every corner, I could operate two weeks without having to order anything,” Jackson said. “That’s in normal times. In the holidays, you can get wiped out in two days.”