Strange times call for strange measures.
In the world created by the pandemic, business owners have to struggle with a host of issues: tangled supply chains, strained manpower pools, shortages of pretty much everything. This is as true in the liquor industry as it is anywhere else, and, just like anyone else, liquor store owners are thinking outside the box.
The short supply of some liquor has led to the emergence of software robots — or “bots” — that order cases of hard-to-get tipples, finding and ordering them immediately.
While they are a solution to a problem for some stores, others see their use as unfair.
But, in the long run, will this software assistance matter?
In Mississippi, liquor stores are required to order their stock from Alcohol Beverage Control, which is a division of the Department of Revenue.
The heart of the operation is a warehouse in Gluckstadt that is more than 200,000 square feet and contains over a mile and a half of conveyor belts, according to ABC Deputy Director Chip Jones. Store owners use a web portal to place orders.
As soon as a truck unloads, those cases of booze appear on the state’s web site and are available to order, Jones said.
“If a truck comes in with Crown Royal, the cases are offloaded and processed and put into inventory,” Jones said. “Any permittee can see it and place an order at that point.”
Getting that case of Crown (to a store) used to be a matter of a few days, Jones said.
“Before COVID, you were looking at one to two days to get an order,” he said. “If they placed an order before about 11 a.m. that morning, it went out on the truck that night and they would get it the next day.”
The pandemic brought that delivery time to a screeching halt, pretty much literally.
James Ervin owns Mike’s Liquor Store on Highway 45 North. His frustration at trying to fill his shelves is palpable.
“During COVID, it was taking up to four weeks to fill an order,” Ervin said. “I had a (liquor representative) tell me that at one point the state was 200,000 cases behind on orders. I’ve ordered stuff I wanted to have for Christmas, and got it four months later.”
That delay has shrunk, according to Jason Sims, who owns The Jug in East Columbus.
“We’re still looking at about a two-week delay in delivery,” Sims said. “That’s still a drastic change from what it was before the pandemic.”
Ervin agreed the situation had changed since the nadir of the pandemic, but was still much slower than it used to be.
“The order I’m getting tomorrow was placed two weeks ago,” he said. “The supply chain isn’t as bad as it was, but it’s still bad.”
The delays are driven by several intersecting problems, Jones said. The first is the early pandemic spike in demand, which feeds into the resulting tangles in the supply chain.
“Demand just shot up tremendously, some months as much as 40 percent,” he said. “Our normal growth rate was around 5 percent annually, over the past two years it’s been more like 20 percent.”
While demand is not “stable,” Jones said it is still elevated over pre-pandemic figures.
Then there were the other delays, caused by shipping and shortages.
“There was a glass shortage at one point,” Jones said. “(Distilleries) may have the juice, but they didn’t have the bottles. There was a strike at Heaven Hill Distillery for two months. When ports in California have a backlog of ships, then we’re waiting on that product. It’s all kinds of things outside of Mississippi that affect what happens here.”
As that backlog began to work itself out, ABC faced a new challenge: finding workers. Warehouse workers left, applications dried up. Jones said ABC’s warehouse was only staffed at about 70 percent.
“We would ship about 65,000 cases a week before COVID,” he said. “It was usually higher at the front and back ends of the week. There was a lull in the middle where we could catch up on paperwork, cleaning, things like that. Now we’re shipping at full capacity every night, and it’s a stress on the workforce and on the equipment.”
That stress manifests in high turnover, he said.
“We’re at 90 percent staffing now, probably, but about 10 percent of those you can’t count on to stick around,” he said. “The turnover rate is just ridiculous, so you spend a lot of time training and interviewing and it doesn’t leave a lot of time to deal with other problems.”
For want of a Hennessy
All of these fits and starts in the supply chain and the ABC warehouse leave store owners in the lurch, especially when it comes to something that’s already hard to get. Take Hennessy, for example. The cognac came up in practically every discussion The Dispatch had reporting this story as something that was in high demand, but hard for either ABC or store owners to grab.
“Demand has always exceeded supply,” Jones said. “As soon as it comes in, it sells out.”
Stores that usually ordered two or three cases went to ordering 20-30 at a time, Jones said. To try to ease the demand among the state’s 700-plus stores, ABC put a cap on the number of cases a store could order during a certain time period.
This didn’t sit well with some store owners who already felt that they weren’t getting their fair share, so they turned to technology as a force multiplier. The idea was that a bot could monitor the stock at ABC’s warehouse and, as soon as something hard-to-find like Hennessy came available, the bot could place an order nearly instantaneously.
One liquor store owner who uses such a bot agreed to speak to The Dispatch on condition of anonymity.
“What it does is it searches for a specific product,” they said. “If it’s in there it tells me it’s in stock, and how many cases. Right now (the bot) doesn’t order for me, but I’m fixing to program it to do that, too.”
They said they turned to bots after getting frustrated at their inability to get certain products, including Hennessy.
“You can sit online and see a thousand cases (of Hennessy) show up,” they said. “The state won’t let you order but 10 cases at a time. By the time I see that it’s in and jump on the computer and put in my order, those thousand cases may already be gone. I couldn’t get the products I needed because I was having to search and order manually.”
They said they suspected rival stores of using bots, and called ABC to complain.
“The guy at (ABC) told me to get my own program,” they said. “So I said, ‘Ok, thank you.’”
They hired a student at East Mississippi Community College who was in a technical program to create the bot. Thirteen pages of code was all it took.
“Someone who’s computer savvy could write one themselves,” they said.
Other liquor store owners who don’t use bots feel the practice is unfair. None of the anti-bot store owners The Dispatch contacted would talk on the record for this story, but all of them said they were increasingly at a disadvantage when it came to getting in-demand or rarer products. They also questioned how hundreds of cases of Hennessy — or whatever else — could disappear in minutes.
“How did everybody know it was going to be there and then it’s gone, all in under a minute?” one wondered.
Jones — who works on the warehouse, not enforcement, end of ABC — said that bots are not illegal.
“We’ve talked to the legal department and enforcement, and the position is that there’s nothing illegal about it,” he said. “It’s not that much different than stores that already hire a college student to sit in front of a computer all day and check, just like a bot would do. The only thing that could cause an issue is if (bots) eat up a ton of bandwidth. That would slow the whole system down.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
All of this — the bots, the backlogs, the queues of orders — may soon be irrelevant due to a bill passed in the most recent session that both privatizes operations at the warehouse and allows a new warehouse to be built.
“Inbound and outbound operations will be outsourced to a third-party company,” he said. “The big thing there is that (workers) will not be tied to the state personnel board as far as wages, so there will be more flexibility to answer the market and what the expectation for wages is.”
The warehouse also typically operates on a four-day work week, and private ownership could expand those hours to better meet needs.
The majority of the liquor store owners who spoke to The Dispatch said they thought that would clear up many of the problems that drove store owners to bots in the first place.
“We’re expecting a pretty drastic change going forward,” Sims said.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.