John Kelsey, owner of three Roller's liquor stores on Hilton Head Island, worries a bill to be considered today by a state Senate panel could hurts the sales of mom-and-pop liquor stores around the state or even put them out of business.
The legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee would increase from three to seven the number of retail liquor-store licenses a business could have.
Kelsey and other small-business owners say the change means big-box retailers, like Total Wine & More, will open stores and drive out smaller retailers.
"(Total Wine's) strategy is to go in and price liquor at or below costs. You can't compete with someone like a Total Wine," Kelsey said. "If this passes, Total Wine will have seven (liquor licenses). Walmart will have seven. Costco will have seven. It will shift from small, locally owned businesses to the big boxes."
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More than 40 liquor stores operate in Beaufort and Jasper counties, all of them small and locally owned, according to Kelsey, president of the ABC Stores of South Carolina, a trade group that represents the state's liquor stores.
David Trone, co-owner of Total Wine, a national chain that operates about 90 wine superstores in 14 states, said the legislation is a great way to increase competition and give consumers the best products for less.
"The only people not backing it are competitors. Consumers love it," Trone said.
If the bill passes, Trone said, his company is interested in expanding beyond its three locations in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, although it's too early to say where the stores would be.
And he thinks smaller liquor stores could stay in business.
"The smaller stores sell to the local clientele, and they can offer highly personalized service," he said. "We have mom-and-pops that operate down the street from us all over the country."
Kelsey said the "free market" argument carries little weight. The state already heavily regulates liquor stores, making it difficult to compete, he said.
"If you want to have free competition, let's deregulate the industry," he said, noting he cannot be open on Sunday, cannot deliver liquor, cannot sell to someone under 21, along with other restrictions. "It's tough, particularly on the small businesses, because of all the regulation."
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, would vote on the bill should it win approval today and advance to the Senate floor.
Davis said he would attend the meeting to hear the two sides make their cases.
"I oppose state interference in free-market activities unless regulation is necessary to prevent public harm," Davis said. "I don't serve on the Judiciary Committee but will attend this meeting to hear advocates make their case."