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Grab some pinot grigio and stay home: Liquor stores are swamped

The prospect of spending weeks isolated at home has caused a rush at liquor stores in recent days, boosting store sales by as much as 300% from a year ago.

Liquor store workers are used to crowds, especially around Christmas and other holidays, as shoppers prepare for long stretches at home, time off from work and, yes, merrymaking. But this is different, they say.

Now there is the added fear that liquor stores may be forced to close, just like enclosed malls, bars, bowling alleys and restaurants.

"It’s been crazy since last Thursday. It’s just big crowds," said Zach Kindron at Butler's Wine & Spirits in the Town of Tonawanda. Kindron added: "Especially in the initial craze, everyone who is staying home might be looking for something to do. But I think people are just scared about how long they might be stuck at home and are overbuying a lot of things."

More people are hitting stores and buying wine and liquor in large quantities – cases of wine and multiple bottles of alcohol per person.

Out-of-stocks from suppliers are common in the liquor industry, stores said, but some products are getting low or have sold out.

That has been the case for Everclear, the 190-proof grain alcohol people are using to make hand sanitizer in the face of sanitizer shortages, despite guidance from experts that doing so is not a good idea.

Other popular sellers include mainstream wines such as Apothic Red and 19 Crimes, as well as midrange spirits, such as Seagram's whiskey and Smirnoff vodka.

"It really got crazy when they announced they were closing all the bars and restaurants," said Laura Gunnells at Cheap Chollies in Springville, referring to the state's mandate that those establishments close except for takeout and delivery beginning Monday night.

New rules were announced Tuesday, however, that those establishments can sell whatever items their liquor licenses allow as long as they're sold with food. The beverages must be in packaging that meets open-container laws. There has been no indication that liquor stores will be forced to close.

Staffing has been a challenge over the past week, leaving stores shorthanded to handle the unanticipated rush.

Many stores have shortened their hours. Cheap Chollies is now open just nine hours per day, which allows it to stay staffed while letting most employees keep an eight-hour workday.

While some businesses have started to offer curbside pickup and local delivery since the coronavirus pandemic began, that is more difficult for liquor stores, which have to deal with things such as state liquor laws and checking identification to make sure buyers are of legal age. Cheap Chollies verifies age by scanning driver's licenses on a machine in the store.

Premier Wine, Liquor & Spirits offered delivery and in-store pickup before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but those services have become much more popular in the past week, according to Jon Notarius, manager at the Amherst store. Sales via that method have increased up to 400% he said.

By Wednesday morning, liquor stores reported sales had begun to slow.

"I think people are getting the message of how serious it is. If they don’t have to go out, they're not going to," Notarius said. "Eventually, there's only so much people can buy, even at grocery stores, before they run out of room to store it and money to buy things."

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