Liquor shoplifting: Did initiative create a problem?

Officials are worried that the proliferation of private liquor sales has led to more chances for underage theft. But no officials have hard numbers on the scope of the problem.
Rep. Chris Hurst

Rep. Chris Hurst

Did Initiative 1183, the state's liquor privatization measure, create a liquor shoplifting problem in Washington?

So far, our legislators don't know.

A work group convened by the head of the state House's government accountability committee to address liquor shoplifting left its first meeting Monday with more questions than answers.

The group, dubbed the "Post-Privatization Workgroup on Alcohol Diversion, Access and Loss Prevention," spent much of its time just trying to get a handle on the issue, as representatives from various grocery corporations and associations took turns saying how little information they had about the crime.

About halfway through the meeting, after representatives of grocers and grocers' associations said that they had not brought hard numbers to share with the group, Enumclaw Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst asked: "How do we get to the question of do we have a problem, and if so how big is it?"

Typically, workgroups assembled in the Legislature study issues to decide if a change to the law is necessary; if one is, they often will also help prepare the first draft of a bill. Since Hurst's committee only began meeting halfway through this legislative session, well after several key deadlines, any changes or proposals the committee might decide to recommend likely would not see a larger vote in the Legislature until next year.

Hurst said he convened the group in response to a request from House Speaker Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and that he and Chopp shared the feeling that the shoplifting question warranted further investigation. Liquor shoplifting, especially by teens, has been covered extensively by newspapers around the state since the 2011 initiative switched liquor sales from state-run stores to private groceries.

"I've noticed a big change, personally," Hurst said. "When I went out and saw alcohol being displayed right by the front door, that was a problem."

Another part of the reason for creating the group, Hurst said, was a request earlier in the year from the Washington Association of Police Chiefs and Sherriffs for a change in the rules about how liquor theft is reported. Currently, stores are not required to report thefts of liquor to the police, or any other state agency. Earlier this year the association asked the state Liquor Control Board to change require stores to report their losses due to theft so that police and regulators in the state could see if a problem existed.

But the stores resisted the idea, said Mitch Barker, head of the police association after Monday's meeting.

Barker said the original request wasn't motivated at first by any concrete knowledge of a problem, but rather by wanting to figure out if a problem did exist. "We didn't think it was a problem, but now we think it is," Barker said. "The fact that they won't give us the numbers makes me suspicious."

Representatives of grocery chains, including Fred Meyer and Costco, took a different tack, saying they did not have numbers or even general data about the amount of liquor being shoplifted from their stores, but that they would find the information to present to the workgroup.

Despite the lack of hard numbers, Hurst said afterward he wasn't disappointed with the course the meeting had taken. Rather, he said, he trusted the retailers to make good on their promise to supply the information, and also had expected the group would take some time to gather information.

The next meeting will be held within a month, Hurst said. Along with giving retailers time to get their own information together, Hurst said, the delay would also be a time to study the issue as a whole,  including how other states dealt with the privatization process.

The Liquor Control Board could create an inventory rule to require tracking without waiting for the Legislature. 

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

Tom James has helped cover the 2013 state legislative session for Crosscut through the University of Washington journalism program. He also writes for Crosscut on other subjects. Born in Seattle and raised in Kitsap, Tom worked for the Kitsap Navy News and Central Kitsap Reporter before heading to the UW for a double-major in journalism and economics, which he hopes to finish in 2014.

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Posted Wed, Mar 20, 6:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes the Democrats in the Legislature and the Governor are responsible for the messy road that privatization has had to take. They partnered with the Unions and the Distributors to make it as expensive as possible for privatization to occur. Had they allowed I-1100 to pass the year previous, many issues would have been avoided.

The theft problem is not limited to liquor for retailers, but the Legislators want to highlight it in some sort of childish "I told you so" moment. Grow up, move on, let the retailers protect their ivestments as they see fit. Do you see Major National Liquor chains like Total Wine and More, Bev-Mo having similar concerns?


Posted Wed, Mar 20, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

On the matter of shoplifting liquor from supermarkets, the only thing I heard about in the press was that the self-service checkout stands were being used. The grocery stores are allergic to any talk about problems with self-service checkout because they like the idea of shedding employees, whose wages, benefits, and pensions cut into corporate profits. At a time when there are more human beings than ever before, it would seem logical to employ more humans--to make greater, not less, use of human labor. But the grocery chains, along with many other big companies, have a different idea...

Posted Wed, Mar 20, 4:50 p.m. Inappropriate

The grocery store where I shop most often got rid of its self-serve checkouts shortly after it started selling liquor. As someone who buys a bottle of booze once in a blue moon, I was absolutely floored by how much the stuff costs, so yes, it would seem shoplifting could become a serious problem for any store selling liquor. And yes, the problem could become more widespread with more sales outlets. Duh.


Posted Wed, Mar 20, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Liquor theft is rampant in grocery stores as I have learned from someone in charge of adult beverages (beer, wine, spirits) at one of the largest grocery chains in the state. Grocery stores are easy pickings for all shoplifters, including teens. Thieves know that security is lax especially during late night shifts. But theft takes place at any time throughout the day because only management (or seldom-used security personnel) can stop or challenge suspects and then only if they have witnessed the theft and maintained uninterrupted sight of the suspect. Thieves have been seen carrying large amounts of unconcealed liquor right out the door. Worse yet, suspected shoplifters just keep returning to try their luck several times a day. If they think they are in danger of being caught by managers or security, they will drop the stolen goods in the store and leave, only to return at a later time to try again. None of the grocery stores will know exactly how much is being lost to theft until they count their entire inventory on a more frequent basis.


Posted Wed, Mar 20, 1:42 p.m. Inappropriate

There was nothing done to prevent shoplifting in state liquor stores. It happened there, too.


Posted Wed, Mar 20, 7:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Rich Republicans, one percenters, Mormons, Tea Party members, and non-drinkers all shy away from the local shoplifting lowlife crowd.


Posted Thu, Mar 21, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

I voted against I-1100 because I thought there was greater potential for alcohol abuse by teenagers and chronic alcoholics. Neither of these did I wish to promote.

I am frankly disgusted that grocery stores are allowing their quest for profits to trump what they know to be an issue of public health.

We already don't invest enough in treatment for people who have chronic addictions to substances such as alcohol and drugs. Making alcohol more available can only result in more abuse. The shoplifting issue is an inevitable side effect.


Posted Thu, Mar 21, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Big box retailers are terrified to present the actual loss numbers from their newly created liquor departments. The dollar amounts are staggering. They worry that if it is deemed a legitimate public safety concern that they will be forced to sequester alcohol into contained areas with restricted access, therefor reducing convenience and impulse buys. The number of theft incidents by underage individuals is a significant percentage in many counties and growing because the theives are well aware that they will go unchallenged. The large retailers are also receiving tremendous discounts on their massive liquor purchases from Southern Wines and Spirits, and Young's Market, as well as turning huge volumes which makes absorbing the losses a consequence that they are willing to take. Society at large will pay a bigger price with increased underage drinking and the potential for organized crime to create a black market, reselling stolen liquor.

Posted Thu, Mar 21, 1:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Now just substitute the term Marijuana for Liquor/Alcohol in the previous posts...rinse and repeat. If the State Liquor board, which still has enforcment responsibilities can't do it's job for liquor now, why are we giving them the additional responsibility for Pot?


Posted Sat, Mar 23, 7:19 a.m. Inappropriate

"Did Initiative 1183, the state's liquor privatization measure, create a liquor shoplifting problem in Washington?"

No, Tom, the shoplifting of liquor is a byproduct of lack of personal character, not the initiative process. Stealing is still stealing, any way you try to spin it.

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