The mom-and-pop package stores in Massachusetts now can identify an enemy in their Question 3 ballot campaign: retail giant Total Wine & More.
Question 3 represents the latest round in a debate that has lasted for years over the limits on how many retail, or “off-premises,” alcohol licenses can be controlled by any one company in this state. It’s a fight that has long pitted small, independent liquor stores against larger retail chains that want the right to sell alcohol more broadly.
This ballot question would, among other things, somewhat loosen those caps, by increasing the number of locations under one corporate owner that can sell beer and wine from 9 to 18 over the course of a decade. However, it would also reduce the number of locations with common ownership that can sell hard alcohol from nine to seven.
It’s an attempt at a compromise, proposed by the Massachusetts Package Stores Association to fend off a ballot question that MassPack anticipated from food retailers such as convenience store chain Cumberland Farms that would allow even more expanded sales. Several food retailers had formed a ballot committee to oppose Question 3 but that committee eventually chose not to raise or spend any money, and the food stores never submitted their own ballot question this time around.
Still, MassPack executive director Rob Mellion feared that some big retail chain would enter the fray as the statewide vote in November drew near.
He was right. That retailer turned out to be Total Wine. The Maryland-based company, which has seven stores in Massachusetts and nearly 230 nationwide, launched TV ads and mailings last week framing Question 3 as bad for consumers, by supposedly favoring businesses that sell at higher prices and provide less-expansive selections. Total Wine is funding this campaign directly with its own money. Its $2.1 million expenditure reported this month is by far the most that any single company has spent directly to influence a Massachusetts ballot question, as opposed to working through a committee, in the past decade.
Total Wine vice president Edward Cooper said his company entered the fray in part because Question 3′s proponents are trying to stifle competition.
“Let’s call this what it is, protectionism,” Cooper said in an e-mail. “So much for the free market being alive and well in Massachusetts.”
Cooper said Total Wine saw no need to “hide behind” a committee.
“We chose to fight on our own against this unfair and bad ballot measure for Massachusetts consumers,” Cooper added.
Total Wine’s TV ad calls Question 3 a “backroom deal” that hurts consumers by doubling licenses for “select high priced chains.” (There’s no indication that Question 3 is a “backroom deal,” as the ad claims, and most of MassPack’s members only own one or a few liquor stores.)
If voters approve Question 3, it could be harder to lobby the Legislature to further expand alcohol sales locations in the future. And if Cumby’s or another large retailer tried to do so with another ballot question, MassPack could file a legal challenge, arguing that six years need to pass before voters are asked to decide on a ballot question that is substantially the same. Cumby’s, a Westborough-based chain now owned by a British conglomerate, had started to push a ballot question in 2019 that would lift the cap on the number of alcohol licenses that one food retailer could have, but those efforts petered out in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Total Wine’s TV ad features a sign saying Question 3 “reduces alcohol licenses for family owned businesses,” a reference to the proposed reduction in the cap for locations that sell hard alcohol. Yes, Total Wine, owned by two brothers, David and Robert Trone, is a family-owned business. However, it describes itself as the “nation’s largest independent retailer of wine, beer, and spirits.”
“It’s obviously infuriating that a company with over 200 superstores in 27 states is calling themselves a small business when they are the ones that are trying to wipe out small businesses,” Mellion said. “We’re fighting an opposition group with unlimited resources.”
The Question 3 battle, Mellion said, is shaping up to be a David vs. Goliath fight. His members are fighting for survival, he added, while Total Wine is “only fighting to get more money, more market share.” Total Wine, he said, can put his members out of business by undercutting them on prices, through bulk purchasing. His committee has raised more than $500,000 for this battle this year, about one-fourth of Total Wine’s spending here, as of earlier this month. Total Wine is also spending millions on a ballot question in Colorado that would expand alcohol sales locations there.
Cumberland Farms senior counsel Matthew Durand said the retailers’ ballot committee, Food Stores for Consumer Choice, has decided to remain neutral in this fight. His company, he said, is more interested in returning to the Legislature next year to seek changes in how retail alcohol licenses are capped by municipality.
“Total Wine is a big player and they obviously care about this,” Durand said. “In a sense, I’m not surprised that they’re weighing in on this. But it was not coordinated through us or any of our committees.”
Even if Total Wine is going it alone, MassPack faces a formidable foe.
Mellion likes to say that whenever Total Wine shows up, nearby independent shops go out of business. Another thing happens when Total Wine shows up: His group’s campaign for Question 3 becomes much tougher to win.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.