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Sunday liquor sales: Who is fighting them and why?

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Sunday sales in Minnesota liquor stores is a perennial issue for the Legislature. It wasn’t much of a surprise to see a proposed bill on the agenda of a Senate committee earlier this month. The surprise was that it squeaked through the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee with an 8-7 vote — especially after a similar bill was defeated in the House last year in a blistering 110-20 vote.

Despite its seemingly puritan roots, the Sunday ban is an economic issue today — with one side claiming a guaranteed revenue boost from Sunday sales and others insisting it would put them out of business.

Some say it has always been an economic issue. Was the law originally intended to honor the Christian Sabbath or to protect Christian business owners on their day off from competition by business owners not obliged to the Christian calendar?


The next stop for the proposed bill is the Senate Finance Committee, and there’s going to be a lot of hustle between now and then by players big and small. Will we hold our place on the list of 14 states that ban Sunday sales? Let’s take a closer look at who is fighting for what and why.

Who wants to keep liquor stores closed on Sundays?

The state’s powerful liquor lobby — largely funded by member contributions from the owners of Minnesota liquor stores — is firmly planted in its opposition to Sunday sales. How firmly planted? The money will tell you. The Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, representing 90 percent of the state’s city-owned liquor stores, and the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association with its nearly 2,000 members who sell liquor in stores, bars and restaurants, have put more than $750,000 into lobbying efforts since 2005. They haven’t thrown every dollar into the Sunday sales fight, but they spend enough to earn an ear at the Capitol on just about any issue that enters their territory — and this is a perennial focus for them.

The two organizations share lobbyists and have never been publicly at odds over any piece of legislation. “We handle those issues internally,” says Paul Kaspszak, executive director of the Municipal Beverage Association, which claims 90 percent of the state’s city-owned liquor stores as members. “When there’s something we want that isn’t a good fit for the Licensed Beverage Association, we drop it.”

In most Minnesota liquor law fights — including the smoldering debate over wine in grocery stores — there is a third heavy: The Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association. The organization has spent more than $500,000 on lobbying efforts since 2005. But Association President Michael Madigan says they’re neutral on Sunday sales. “That is our position and that is what we’ve told legislators,” Madigan told MinnPost.

Why does the liquor lobby want to restrict liquor sales?

Some say it’s about preserving their day off every week. The law wouldn’t force stores to open on Sunday, but some store owners say they would be forced to open their doors if they wanted to remain competitive. Those same people fear — and sometimes insist — that only expenses would go up, spreading the work and the cost of having workers over seven days instead of six without a corresponding jump in sales.

Others say a lifting of the Sunday sales ban would mean certain passage of a law allowing wine sales in grocery stores, something the liquor lobby has long maintained would be a fatal blow to the state’s smaller liquor stores.

“It’s not about a day off,” says Kaspszak, “and we don’t deny that Sunday sales would probably be good for some of our members in specific locations. It’s that threat of this leading to wine in grocery stores.”

Over at the Licensed Beverage Association the objections are nearly identical, with an extra emphasis on the risks to small family operations already struggling in a highly competitive market.

“If I really thought I could make extra money with a seven-day week, I’d be in favor of this,” says Licensed Beverage Association President Robert Marget, who also runs the River Liquor Store in Northeast Minneapolis — a small store that has been family owned for decades.

There are association members who support the measure, most notably metro giants Merwin Liquors and Chicago-Lake Liquors. However, says Marget, “I don’t find any of what I would call smaller liquor stores in favor.”

What are the Teamsters doing in this fight?

The Teamsters represent workers in warehousing, distribution and delivery of liquor and their opposition is framed as a matter of solidarity. In a letter to state Sen. Chris Gerlach, Teamsters Political Director Edward Reynoso asserted the union’s position that another day of sales would merely spread the work over seven days without bringing in more money. The people advocating for Sunday sales, of course, contest this assertion.

Surely traffic accidents and fatalities must fit into this debate somewhere?

It certainly does, but available research serves both sides.

In a 2010 study summary provided to committee members by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, university researchers from Cornell and Stanford found that “restricting alcohol sales on Sunday has a negligible effect on fatal accident rates,” and that their results “suggest that Sunday alcohol sales restrictions have less secular public health benefits, at least in terms of vehicle fatalities, than previously believed, and that most of the reduction in fatal accidents from these laws could be achieved by better enforcing minimum legal drinking age restrictions.”

A 2006 study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at the effect of legalized Sunday sales on traffic accidents and fatalities in New Mexico came to a graver conclusion. Researchers estimated an excess of 543 crashes, or a 29 percent increase, and 41.6 fatalities, or a 42 percent increase, over the five-year period following that state’s lifting of their Sunday ban.

So who wants to end the ban on Sunday sales?

The heavy in this corner is the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Outside agitators! Not really. Their ambassador on this issue is former Minnesota Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson, who came to the committee hearing on March 16 armed abundantly with talking points and statistics. Chief among them: “Sunday is the second busiest shopping day of the week,” and “Shoppers also tend to spend 21 percent more on Sunday than any other day of the week.”

There’s more math from the council. According to a policy analysis presented at the hearing, Sunday sales in Minnesota would mean an estimated $7.6 million to $10.6 million in new tax revenues.

The Minnesota Grocers Association is in there too. Talk about spending enough money to earn an ear at the Capitol: since 2005 the organization has spent more than $1 million lobbying their issues. Some grocers already sell liquor — in separate buildings. If there were an increase in sales, they’d be glad to get in on it. And if the lifting of the ban really did lead to wine in grocery stores, that would be a win for them.

Where are the atheists in all of this?

I’m glad you asked. They’re right in the middle of it. August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, spoke at the committee hearing and submitted a written statement. Here’s some of what he had to say:

"The fact that today the argument seems to revolve mostly around economics should not obscure the original religious intent of the law … we oppose government laws that favor religion over non-religion. This proposed bill is a good start towards ending government favoritism toward a particular religion. However, it doesn’t go quite far enough. Under this bill, Christmas remains singled out as the one day each year that liquor stores would not be allowed to sell liquor. This favors a Christian holiday over Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious holidays, and over atheism, which has no official holidays at all.”

What do the neutral parties say about the revenue advantages of Sunday sales?

Analysis by the Minnesota Department of Revenue doesn’t really aid either side of this fight. They see an increase in revenue for the state, but it’s a pittance: somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 each year through 2015.

So what’s next?

The Senate Finance Committee will take up the proposed bill, though it’s not clear exactly when.

Now it’s your turn. Are you in the middle of this fight? Are you an interested observer? Don’t be a stranger. See you in the comments.

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Comments (26)

I've never understood this law. Same deal with no car sales on Sunday. Why stop there? How about no furniture sales on Saturday? No clothing sales on Wednesday? Just silly....

Funny. I didn't see the most important constituency's opinion here--consumers. But if you were only looking for those who oppose this law, that's probably because you'll find virtually no consumers opposed to it. The only people opposed to it are the ones spending millions of dollars to protect their own nicely-feathered nest.

Look at lobbying expenses like protection money for the mob. They pay off the politicians, and they'll protect their cozy little liquor fiefdom. It's not likely you'll ever get liquor and beer consumers to band together to form a lobbying force as mighty as the liquor mob. But maybe it's high time they try.

I just don't see a problem with Sunday sales. If you don't want to be open on Sundays, then don't. Nobody is forcing you.

I especially feel for those stores on the border that lose customers to WI, ND, SD, and IA. If one is looking for compromise, how about allowing Sunday sales for any store located within 10 miles of a state border. I believe there is already a similar law on the books that allows liquor stores within a certain mile radius of the capital to be open until 10 on weeknights, as long as the store is in a different county (Lilydale has two liquor stores open until 10 on weeknights as it is close to the capitol but is in Dakota county.)

My other question would be what effect (if any) does current Minnesota law influence Sunday off-sale traffic from Minnesota customers in border communities (e.g. Hudson, Fargo, Grand Forks and Superior)?

Karl, here's something I cut from the piece because it didn't really match the tone of the rest of the piece and because I had no numbers to back it up (though anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming on this point):

Q: Who supports lifting the ban?

A: You, probably. Sorry, that's not reporting there--that's a wild guess. Am I wrong? Meet me in the comments.

Another reason I cut that: for recovering alcoholics and anybody with a deeply held public health concern, that quip just isn't funny. But organizations representing those two constituencies haven't been very vocal this time around. Maybe with more warning (it came up pretty quickly this year) they will be present at the next level of debate over the proposed bill.

Great point Karl. The retail market should be centered around CONSUMERS.
This one law is not a big deal overall, but it is a little erosion of freedom on which larger laws are justified.

I call out my Representative and Senator on this all the time and they give me the same line.

Senator Ann H. Rest -
Dear Frank. Small business owners tell me that their sales would not be improved and their costs would go up. I cannot in good conscience support such a change at this time. This is not the way I would have started the system, but changing it at the present time would do more harm than good.

Similar whining by retailers a generation ago that Sunday sales would be catastrophic for their businesses, or the families of employees, or families in general, were similarly based on not-quite-explicit references to Christian theology and a long tradition of having Sunday off. Why not have Thursday off? Because there aren’t many church servi… um… well… just because.
A ban on liquor sales on Sunday serves religion, and it serves the interests of some of the state’s licensed drug dealers and producers as opposed to the interests of other licensed drug dealers or producers in Minnesota. Alcohol, while legal, has the same kinds of effects as a whole pharmacy full of substances we’ve decided should be illegal. Compare annual deaths from alcohol, traffic-related included, to annual deaths from, say, heroin overdose or marijuana usage, and the oddness of the arguments both for and against, is simply highlighted.

We allow alcohol sales, and tax the substance fairly stiffly as a revenue source. Extending sales to Sunday doesn't seem to me a radical change in that policy. I lived for a half a century in a state that not only permitted Sunday sales, but permitted Sunday sales in grocery stores, most of which had full-fledged liquor sections. There were still some independent liquor stores doing business years after the change-over was made, so doing something like that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the family-owned-and-operated drug trade, though it does lean toward corporatization.

As a complete and life-long teetotaler, I think prohibition is a great idea with but one tiny flaw – it doesn’t work. By now we have many years of statistics and news stories to prove beyond all doubt that prohibition of “illegal drugs” has been approximately as effective as prohibition of alcohol worked with the 19th Amendment in the 1920s. My students’ take on the D.A.R.E. program, for example, was basically to change the words of the acronym to “Drugs Are Real Expensive.” They didn’t take it seriously, nor should we. Paying homage to Christian objections to Sunday liquor sales crosses the boundary separating church and state, among other things. Christians are free to refrain from liquor purchases on Sunday. Everyone else should have the option.

Banning Sunday sales of liquor makes as much sense as TJ Jones suggests: it’s silly, and at best it protects one special interest over another special interest.

Re the tangental issue of liquor sales in grocery stores: It is curious that the independent liquor operators don't want the competition in liquor sales, but they are OK selling groceries. Seems that what is good for the goose ought to be good for the gander.

Here's why I don't buy the wine sales in grocery stores will kill business. In the Massachusetts town I grew up in the law there allows grocery stores to sell wine, but only in so many of their stores statewide. So one grocery store sells wine instore and the other has its own separate wine shop next door, not within the store because of quirks in the silly law, and there are two liquor stores in town that are ALWAYS brimming with business. In fact one renovated and expanded business just a couple of years ago. The grocery stores only have had wine available within the last decade, I think, but the liquor stores have been around for much longer and are thriving.

This is one where our legislators would be wise to listen to their constituents rather than the lobbyists.

What do the people want?

You forget the NFL as a big winner (if they survive the lock-out).

Where would the Sunday opiate of the masses be without their communal 12 pack? Without this sacrament it would be very difficult to resist grave temptations and avoid grievous sin.

Other than being a consumer of alcohol, I have no dog in this fight. I actually agree with liquor store owner's concern that being open a seventh day wouldn't increase their sales enough to justify the extra cost. I don't think I'd increase the quantity I purchase -- it would just get spread around more.

That said, I like to make Sunday my market day occasionally and drive to places outside my neighborhood. I'd love to stop in at different liquor stores and see a new selection.

And from a business perspective, our laws about grocery stores not carrying alcohol makes it more expensive for places like Trader Joe's or Cub Foods with liquor stores to do business since they have to have a separate set of staff dedicated to a different part of the store.

If there is a lobbying organization representing consumers, they should weigh in here in favor of Sunday sales, if only for the convenience of consumers.

Car dealers should be open on Sundays too. I tried shopping for cars on my one free day, only to find that no car dealers were open. I was flabbergasted. Why would you be closed on the one day that most consumers would be trying to buy your product?

It has not received a hearing in the House yet (Commerce and Regulatory Reform committee). I contacted the office of the chair:

Representative Joe Hoppe (R) District: 34B
651-296-5066

But guess what! No reply. I wonder why.

Jeff, very interesting article but I agree with Karl, failure to represent the consumers' interests was a glaring omission here. I was surprised that you thought about it and decided not to include that point (and disappointed to hear your explanation of PC self-censorship). I think the focus of the article should have been the underdog consumers, who finally have a chance at changing the law. The vast majority of your readers are consumers, not producers/sellers. The various associations have had no problem getting their message heard over the years, but the article ignores the vast majority and gives the microphone to the special interest lobbyists.

I represent MN Beer Activists, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group run by consumers for consumers. Join us today if you want to make a change. We don't have millions to spend on lobbying dollars, we have votes. You elected these officials, make sure they are representing you, not lobbyists.

For Growth and Justice, I've written extensively on the bogus tax claims being made by the Distilled Spirits Council. In brief, I'd go with the state's analysis of the potential tax revenue increase. You can read why here: http://bit.ly/gDPszT.

The Distilled Spirits Council is not local just because they hired a local lobbyist who, when he worked in the Pawlenty Administration, had ample opportunity to push for a measure that would increase revenue without increasing taxes. He didn't do it.

Why? Because the tax claim is a smokescreen. The Council represents 11 big liquor manufacturers like Bacardi, Beam and Diageo. They don't operate stores or sell to consumers, so they don't have to worry about the impact on small operator profitability or choice for consumers who don't want to buy the mass brands.

For the big boys, sales in groceries is a more desirable outcome, because 1) it's more efficient to sell to retailers that are more likely to be owned by chains vs. liquor stores; and 2) grocery operations are more likely to favor the mass marketed brands that sell in higher volume.

Colorado was the last state to approve Sunday sales and the legislature is now considering a grocery sales bill. Why? Because groceries and convenience stores already sold 3.2 beer on Sundays and they say the Sunday change hurt their sales.

There may be some people out there arguing for consumer choice, but believe me, the battle going on is not about us.

Bill, I don't even know what PC means anymore--but that's another issue altogether (and that's not snark--I really don't know).

My consideration of the recovering alcoholics and the public health piece isn't some sort of forced inclusion; it's the shadow over any conversation about liquor.

And getting the consumer voice in here was my motivation for inviting a discussion in the comments.

Also, the piece was written entirely for consumers--and I count myself among them. In fact, this whole thing started with my own confusion as a consumer.

I do things a little differently here. Part of my job is bringing readers into the process of creating a story. That's worked in all sorts of ways at The Intelligencer.

In this case, it's working beautifully to compensate for what you're calling a glaring omission.

Where are all the conservative anti-government folks? This is a classic example of big government trying to control business with ridiculous regulations. Tea Partiers should be ranting! (OK, they are "Christian" regulations so I guess that is different, much than Muslims who do not want to transport alcohol in a cab.) But I am most astounded that this, and the car sales blue laws, are now couched as some kind of labor protection. That is unbelievable hypocrisy. Perhaps the government should step out of these "rules" and then these folks would just have to form a union to improve their hours and working conditions.

For years- we lobbied for wine sales in grocery stores to no avail. The bill was often crushed by our DFL friends, who we had knocked on doors, filled phone banks, and donated resources too. We were up against the likes of Sam Kaplan, Jim Farrell, and the poor little liquor store owner- who loved dogs and kids, but didn't want any deregulation. The current bill presented this session isn't really about sunday sales, but rather about deregulating an industry, which has remained free of interference since 1933. It is fun to watch this session and see how it will shake out.

The anti-Big Government folks know perfectly well what's going on here. The liquor store industry wants to use the power of Big Government to keep its competitors at bay. The liquor store industry isn't the only industry that wants the protection of Big Government power either. Consumers who object to keeping liquor stores closed on Sunday should remember this issue when they vote, and select only limited-government candidates.

All retailers would be very wise if they were all (except gas stations for travel) closed on Sundays. We all would buy just as many washing machines and apples whether the stores are open six days a week or seven. Think of the lower operating costs for the same sales revenue!

Rosalind: It's funny to me how anti-big government types fail to see how big business is at work here.

The industry is saying "let us keep the rules we have." Big distillers, whose costs and operations are not effected by the change, are saying "change the rules because we might sell more booze."

A change to the Sunday sales law is not about unleashing new competition against the "liquor store industry." (At least until grocery sales are introduced.) It will still be the same industry with the current players, until some go out of business.

The bill IS changing the rules under which competition has been conducted for many decades. If anything, the government is about to give big liquor stores more of an advantage against the small guys. The large operators can more easily adjust staffing and work hours to weather the disruption the new law would cause.

Small operators are left with the choice to work more hours for the same revenue or work the same hours and lose some sales.

A change could be made to expand to 7-day sales weeks, but without expanding the maximum number of hours of operation beyond the current limit. Then, each store would choose - but could also change, at will - which hours or which entire day to remain closed, based on its customer-traffic and revenue patterns, as well as the schedules at nearby competing stores. This approach could minimize increased operating expenses while improving sales-per-hour rates, and also better serve the preferences of the customers.

I don't see a reason to have liquor store to be open on Sundays. I don't believe it will help the revenue go up at all.. I manage a small family owned liquor stores and it's already hard trying to compete with the bigger stores. If they were to pass the bill, it will only mean that us small business owners would have to spend more time and money on keep the store open an extra day. Bigger Stores can afford to do such things and I just feel this whole bill forgets to think about the smaller stores. Our busy days are usually Fridays and Saturdays but if we were to open on Sundays all the sales we would usually get on Fridays and Saturdays would just go to Sunday so it's not like we'd see any more income coming in. Also if grocery stores were able to sell beer and liquor then the sales in liquor stores would go down meaning it could force some stores to be out of business. My family and I have owned this store for over 10 years and we have also been the one working here day after day and looking forward to our only day off which is Sunday. People say that if the bill passes then it's on us if we want to open or not, but if you see your competitors open then of course you will stay open as well just to keep your regular customers. We have no choice but to open. If they want to build up revenue I think they should UN-ban the smoking ban. People should be able to enjoy a beer inside and be able to smoke their cigarettes inside as well rather then having to put their beer down and go outside to smoke. There are many other ways they could build up revenue and I just think having liquor stores open on Sundays shouldn't be one of the choices.