The Arlington liquor store that Jon Caffee just walked out of left him thoroughly unimpressed. Where's the catchy display? Where's the selection? Why does he feel like he just walked out of a bad bar run by old Soviet bureaucrats?
What the store did have were old, dust-ridden blowups of football helmets and liquor bottles sitting atop shelves, an empty pamphlet rack decorating a corner and a couple of rows of liquor lining the middle
"It's not a store," said Caffee, 40, after grabbing a bottle of scotch. "It's a government outlet. It's boring. . . . They could be doing something much more significant."
They may just. As part of his plan to restructure state government, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) wants to review the Alcoholic Beverage Control system to see if it might better serve Virginians -- and the state's bottom line -- if the stores were privatized.
"In these days of very hard budget problems, we're going to look at whatever the best situation is that doesn't reduce income to the commonwealth," said Vernon M. Danielsen, chairman of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Danielsen said officials will look at the range of options and decide whether something such as franchising stores, while maintaining state control over the products, makes sense.
In any case, Danielsen said there would "have to be some radically different things done that would bring in a couple hundred million in additional revenue" for the state to uproot its system.
Those things could include steps the state has never taken: opening stores on Sundays, advertising, selling popular products at a loss to lure customers, adding items such as snacks to the shelves and extending hours. Other thoughts include regional pricing -- a liter of Absolut costs the same $22.45 in Alexandria as it does in Abingdon -- and putting mini-liquor outlets inside grocery chains or other stores.
In essence, it would mean running the liquor business like any other.
But liquor is not like any other business, many say. The idea of the state leasing billboards to pitch booze makes many Virginians uneasy. Others visualize a liquor store on every street corner and cringe. And some wonder why the state would tinker with a system that netted more than $46 million last year and does a good job of accommodating legal drinkers and keeping out underage ones.
"I don't really have any interest in Virginia privatizing liquor stores," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford). "I can't, frankly, see what's in it for us."
Most changes to how ABC operates, including something as simple as selling snacks, would require General Assembly approval. So any new plans would likely be met with opposition, assembly leaders said.
Virginia is one of 18 states where liquor is purchased, distributed and sold entirely under the auspices of the state government. All liquor in Virginia starts at a giant warehouse in Richmond before it is sent to ABC stores or licensed restaurants across the state. Beer and wine are categorized separately and are available at a broad range of private outlets.
In the other states, including Maryland, the sale of liquor is partially or fully privatized. Montgomery County uses the same controlled system as states such as Virginia.
Gus Montes de Oca, chief of operations for Montgomery's liquor control board, said the county is the only jurisdiction in the country that operates like a control state. He said Montgomery considered a plan in the mid-1990s to privatize its retail outlets to bring it into line with the rest of Maryland, but the plan died because it lacked support from state officials.
Regulators say both systems work well in fulfilling their main purposes: keeping out underage drinkers and taking in profits.
ABC store hours were pared in January as part of the state's budget cuts. Most stores now are open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., though some close as early as 6 p.m. State legislators have increased liquor prices by an average of 2.6 percent this year. The assembly's budget calls for raising prices an additional 5 percent.
None of that, though, figures to make the stores any more customer friendly. Like Caffee, Jenni and Steve Michener found little to be excited about on their visit to the liquor store. The place has an uninviting vibe, they said. Not being open on Sundays is no good. Stores are harder to find than in their native Maryland.
Then again, maybe prices would be higher if the stores were privatized, they thought. And the two twenty-somethings don't find that they need anything the stores don't carry.
"There's a state-run feel," said Jenni Michener, "but it doesn't need to be posh. If they privatize the place, we'll pay more and it'll feel nicer, but I don't know if it's worth it or not."