Drinking stayed high but shifted from bars to liquor stores amid pandemic

JACKSON — Despite a long career working in the retail liquor industry, Dave Erickson has never witnessed anything like what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was extremely busy from the very beginning,” Erickson said. “It was definitely unique.”

This time last year, when bars and restaurants had closed their doors to help curb the spread of the new virus, business at liquor stores boomed.

At Westside Wine and Spirits, where Erickson works, business increased by 55 percent — a record for the store.

“We really started to see a big influx in April of last year,” he said. “We had a lot of people with seasonal homes here that aren’t typically here this time of year. Plus all the restaurants and bars were closed so if you wanted a drink you were going to liquor stores.”

That switch from “on-premise” to “off-premise” consumption, as the Wyoming Liquor Division terms it, occurred statewide. Even places with fewer COVID-19 restrictions saw shifts in consumer behavior. More people chose to drink at home or in hotel rooms, either because of restrictions or worries about the virus.

The spring 2020 surge Erickson and his staff witnessed also ensued statewide as people prepped for the unknown, stocking up on alcohol with the expectation they would be stuck at home for a while.

“Early on in the pandemic there was a huge increase in sales,” said Dan Noble, director of the Wyoming Department of Revenue, which oversees liquor wholesale sales in the state.

The Department of Revenue tracks wine and liquor sales directly because it sells those through its warehouses. Though it didn’t provide sales data for the entire pandemic, the numbers through September of last year show alcohol sales remained steady in Teton County from 2018 to 2020.

Though Teton County has the ninth-highest population in Wyoming, its wine and liquor sales typically rank in the top three in the state because of the tourism industry, said Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association, an industry group. Overall sales during the pandemic stayed high.

Data from the Wyoming Liquor Division shows 2020 sales in Teton County down a bit at an average of $1.72 million per month through September, compared with $1.79 million in 2018 and $1.83 million in 2019. However, with a complete shutdown in tourism for several months in the spring, locals maintained a level of consumption that is usually supported by visitors.

At the state level, sales through the Liquor Division have jumped the past two years. Unlike county-level data, which was only available through September, statewide figures captured all of 2020, giving more of a window into consumption throughout the pandemic.

Administrator Nicole Novotny Smith described 2019 as a “banner year,” when wine and spirit sales increased from $109.9 million in 2018 to $115.8 million in 2019. But the jump in 2020 was even larger, with $124.5 million in net sales.

The main difference for alcohol sellers was that the bulk of those sales shifted to off-premise stores like West Side Liquors.

For the store’s six-person staff, demand was overwhelming, Erickson said, and still is.

Increased sales nationwide caused delayed deliveries and shortages of big-name products, which is an ongoing problem.

“There are still a number of things that are backed up because we get products from all over the world,” Erickson said. “Mexican beers and tequila were really backed up. Tequila shortages are still a problem. Because shipping docks shut down worldwide, we just got what we got. There isn’t a lot you can do.”

All liquor stores were in the same predicament because certain products are regulated and come through the Liquor Division in Cheyenne.

“It forced everyone to think on their toes,” Plaza Liquors co-owner Ted Nowack said.

Nowack said his store is still having problems getting mini liquor bottles in. And there’s no way to predict when shipments will be back to normal.

His store also saw an increase in sales.

“Drinking just seemed to pick up in this town, which is pretty crazy for a drinking town,” he said. “People were just bored as hell.”

Wine can be shipped directly to individual stores in Wyoming, so many stores tried to diversify their shelves by ordering wines that are similar to those that are usually in high demand.

To keep up with demand but also limit the number of customers in the store at one time, many stores offered curbside pickup and ramped up delivery services.

“Just like everything it was new ground and it was challenging,” Erickson said. “It was a matter of navigating it.”

Along with stores, consumers had to navigate the changes in drinking habits, which for some increased the propensity to overindulge.

“Alcohol use and abuse increased quite a bit,” said Cheryl Renzulli, of Grand Teton Counseling.

Exactly how much is difficult to say. The Curran-Seeley Foundation, which also works with clients struggling with substance abuse, reported a dip in people reaching out for services at the beginning of the pandemic when people were forced into their homes by shutdowns.

Holding counseling sessions and alcohol abuse prevention groups over Zoom may have contributed.

“It feels very impersonal, and people have a tendency to shut down a little more,” Renzulli said of virtual counseling. “They’re not in touch with their emotions. It’s all very flat.”

The pandemic itself created some stressors, namely the isolation. People were working from home and spending most of their time in the same house, with far fewer social interactions. That might have increased their desire to drink as they tried to soothe loneliness or disconnectedness.

“We have clients who struggle because of that isolation factor,” Curran-Seeley Executive Director Trudy Funk said. “What we know about substance-use issues is people need to have a connection to something besides their substance.”

Isolation might have also played another role in increased drinking. Because people were at home, they didn’t have the social pressure to not drink early in the day or over consume late at night once they were off work.

In the past, they might have had a friend willing to talk to them about alcohol abuse and other social interactions and relationships that helped keep their drinking to lower levels. Without those supports in place, counselors saw people at higher levels of crisis when they sought professional help.

“Especially people who live alone, you know, there’s no moderation, there’s nobody looking at you saying, ‘Hey, you know, it seems like you’re drinking a lot more,’ ” Renzulli said.

Though increased alcohol use seemed to be happening across the board, it led to a jump in clients who relapsed, health experts report. Many clients who have gone through counseling for alcohol abuse and addiction create structures that support their sobriety. They might have meetings they regularly attend, work outside the home that occupies their time or friendships they rely on for support. Pandemic isolation and working from home detonated many of those routines.

“All of those things coupled together can really increase the propensity for somebody to relapse,” Funk said.

How the easing of pandemic restrictions will affect consumers and retailers is yet to be seen. Health experts suspect a small subset of people might exit the pandemic with alcohol problems they didn’t have before.

“You’ll find that there will be people who did develop a problem during this time they basically crossed that line, as far as their brain is concerned, and they flipped the switch and went from non-abuse to diagnosable abuse or dependence,” Renzulli said.

However, the majority of people will probably return to pre-pandemic levels of drinking. They might not be predisposed to alcohol abuse, and their habits might shift as pandemic stressors — economic hardship, isolation, fear of COVID-19 — recede.

For retail liquor stores in Jackson, consumer habits will likely continue to be unpredictable.

“We’re going into the offseason, but we are still busier than usual,” The Liquor Store manager Alex Tomlinson said.

Social drinkers who used to belly up to the bar every weekend with friends are still turning to retail liquor stores.

“We had a huge surge in people who were used to buying stuff at the bar, so like bar kits and cocktail mixes are selling,” Tomlinson said. “We’re still teaching people how to make their favorite cocktails at home.”