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Sunday sales look like Colorado: big opening, then 'mellow out'

Bagley Liquor Store worker Peter Walchuk checks bottles in the northern Minnesota store Friday, July 14, in preparation for the third Sunday liquor stores in the state may be open. Bagley Liquor Store photo.1 / 2
The Bagley Liquor Store appears ready for summer weekend beer customers on Friday, July 14. This is the third weekend that liquor stores around the state may be open on Sundays. Bagley Liquor Store photo.2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Two days does not a trend make, but to Christopher Arnold what happened in the first two days Minnesota liquor stores could be open on Sundays looks familiar.

"It basically follows what happened in Colorado," said Arnold, manager at Bagley's city-owned liquor store.

Colorado allowed Sunday sales in 2008 for the first time since prohibition. Many stores opened to long lines, then sales leveled off. Or, as Arnold said in a phrase Coloradans may use, "it sort of mellowed out."

"Everyone is just waiting to see how it works out in the wash," added Arnold, who sits on the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association board..

The first time in Minnesota history that liquor stores legally could open on a Sunday was July 2, and long lines were reported throughout the state, in part because it was a first and in part because it was a holiday weekend. Good business, but not as brisk, was reported on July 9.

The Legislature this year approved letting liquor stores open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays if local governments approve.

Most cities have given approval to private and their own public liquor stores to open, although some only on a trial basis. A few cities have yet to decide and some rejected Sunday sales.

Arnold remains skeptical, pointing out that after Colorado passed Sunday sales more than 30 liquor stores closed. Studies of Colorado stores indicate that they spread six days of revenue over seven days when they began opening Sundays. Arnold said he already has noticed a slight drop in weekday sales in Bagley. As a colleague told Arnold: "You are not going to have 10,000 people drop out of the sky and start drinking tomorrow because we have Sunday sales." The state House never had voted on a full bill allowing Sunday sales until this year.

The House approved the bill 85-45, a surprising gap considering its failure rate over many years. Senators later voted 38-28 for the change. Why the sudden legislative flip-flop? First, polls showed Minnesotans wanted the change. Second, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, threw his support behind the effort after opposing Sunday sales.

With a major new law, there always is talk about tweaking it. Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said she sees no need to change the law soon. However, she quickly added, that could change if liquor stores approach her asking for an earlier opening time.

"I suspect store owners, or some of them, are going to say the 11 o'clock opening isn't great," the longtime Sunday sales advocate said, because people going fishing may want to pick up beer before hitting the water.

As sponsor of the legislation that passed after years of failures, Loon is convinced stores eventually will find they are making more money with an extra day of sales. Lawmakers from border communities, especially next to Wisconsin, often were strong in demanding change as they saw constituents crossing into the Badger state to buy on Sundays.

Loon said she received a text from a Wisconsin friend who said the nearby liquor store parking lot was empty, when it usually was full of Minnesota cars on Sundays. "I am hoping we are going to have people stay home," Loon said about Minnesotans' buying habits. The path to passage started in December, when Daudt used a Forum News Service pre-session forum to say how strongly he felt about Sunday sales.

"If a liquor store doesn't want to be open on Sunday, they don't have to, but consumers would like to have that flexibility," Daudt said.

The Bagley store is an example of that flexibility.

After seeing how sales go, Arnold could keep the Bagley store open on summer and fall Sundays through the end of deer season, then close during cold weather months when there may be fewer customers. But such decisions will wait until there is plenty of sales data available.

In any case, it is a safe bet that most liquor stores will be open on the last two Sundays of this year, when Christmas and New Year's eves fall on Sundays.

The variables about whether to remain open will play out in the next few months and years. For Arnold, for instance, the 4-year-old liquor Bagley store sits on U.S. 2, a highway busy year around that produces frequent customers.

Arnold said his store's location is good because of the highway, but in Thief River Falls the city liquor store is downtown, and on Sundays "you probably could shoot a cannon off and not hit anyone."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.