Washington, D.C. Considers Allowing Sunday Liquor Sales

Changes could make D.C. a seven-day-sprit city


Washington, D.C. is considering lifting its longstanding ban on Sunday liquor sales. The ban is unpopular and is currently costing the city more than $700,000 a year in sales tax receipts. Meanwhile, District drinking guru and author Garrett Peck argued earlier this year that all liquor store owners had to do to overturn the city's restriction on Sunday sales was ask.  

So what's the rub?

Those same liquor store owners are balking at the idea. They argue that they don't want to work on Sundays, that Sunday sales will simply increase their costs while cutting into sales on other days—an argument that Reason contributor Jackson Kuhl ripped to shreds earlier this year—and that competition from big box stores like Walmart will erode their market share.

While some Walmart locations do sell liquor, the District is currently home to exactly zero Walmart stores. 

As for profitability, assuming that liquor stores are profitable businesses the other six days of the week, is there any reason to believe that Sunday would be a uniquely unprofitable day to be open? If the experience of other states that have recently legalized Sunday sales is any indicator, then Sunday is just another profitable day to sell liquor that ends in a "y." Michigan (which legalized Sunday sales in 2010) found that Sunday sales were immediately good for state coffers. One Rhode Island seller said that state's move to Sunday sales "significantly boosted business."

And the retailers least pleased with the recent legalization of Sunday sales in Connecticut appear to be liquor stores in New York, which has permitted Sunday sales for some time.

One New York seller noted that owners of cars with Connecticut license plates had accounted for "about 80 to 85 percent of our sales on Sunday."

Considering most every person in Washington, D.C. is less than a half hour from a liquor store in Maryland or Virginia—states that permit Sunday sales—it's reasonable to assume lifting the ban on Sunday sales would cut into business in those states somewhat. And the sales tax projections bear out that Sunday sales would be a win-win for the District.

It's also likely that other players—not just big box stores—would enter the market and expand consumer choice. For example, some groceries in the District that don't carry liquor avoid selling it because doing so would force them to close on Sundays. (Another solution—walling off a liquor section on Sundays—is a costly and inefficient use of space that at least one grocer in the District has nonetheless adopted.)

Rodman's, a busy and popular specialty grocer located within walking distance of the District's Maryland suburbs, boasts an impressive selection of beer and wine but does not sell liquor. If the District were to open up Sunday sales, that might change.

"As a business decision I think it would be the right one," says Julio Porcell, wine manager at Rodman's, "but it would be up to the owner."

Porcell has waited patiently for the District to relax its ban on Sunday sales.

"I've been in the business 45 years, and I always thought eventually that D.C. would be a seven-day-spirit city," he says.

While the District may relax its ban on Sunday sales, it's not just this part of its liquor rules that need reform in the District. The District's liquor laws are in many ways broken, as evidenced by a recent licensing bust-up involving the popular Hank's Oyster Bar. In that case a handful of neighbors of Hank's were able to force the restaurant's patio to close the night before a popular festival took place in the vicinity because of what's been characterized as a regulatory error made by the former head of the District's liquor control board. The Restaurant Association of Metro Washington is rightly calling for changes "so that small ad hoc groups of people can't hold up the licensing process for businesses."

In the case of Sunday liquor sales in the nation's capital, the small, vocal minority that's holding up repeal of the District's outdated ban would appear to be the sellers themselves. But no one is looking to force owners to open on Sundays. The idea that lifting the ban on Sunday sales would force stores to open else they lose revenue to competitors in the District is absurd, since by not opening on Sundays they are simply losing that same revenue to competitors outside the District (or to restaurants in the District).

I sympathize with small business owners who don't want to work seven days a week. But as the son of a former convenience store owner owner who kept his store open seven days a week, owners in places where Sunday sales are legal have options. They can choose to lose revenue by staying closed, bite the bullet and work all seven days on their own, or do what my father did and partner with others, hire help around the store when you need it, and bribe your kid into volunteering occsaionally by paying him with things like Swedish fish and Bubble Yum.

Washington, D.C. liquor store owners have choices. They shouldn't support a government rule that stands in the way of their loyal customers exercising their own right to choose.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.