Modernizing ABC says counter-service stores are on their way out
Virginia ABC Store 331 in Henrico, one of several stores ABC sees as “sandboxes” for what modernized outposts could look like. (Meghan McIntyre / Virginia Mercury)
Grabbing a bottle of Tito’s Vodka, Virginia’s favorite spirit, at Henrico County’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Store 331 means being greeted with tall, white Ionic columns surrounded by tastefully lit posters bearing words such as “cheers,” “gather” and “celebrate” – a stark contrast to Richmond’s ABC Store 251, where customers are greeted with aisles caged behind bulletproof Plexiglas.
However, Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority has plans to transition counter stores like 251 into self-service ones and revamp all stores across the state through a new modernization plan, according to ABC Chief Digital and Branding Officer Vida Williams.
“We try to be part of the positive economic growth of a community, not the negative,” Williams said. “That’s kind of what our mission is at this point.”
The last three remaining counter-service stores in the state, two of which are located in Richmond and one in Petersburg, opened in the early 1980s and are in predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to census data. Revamping the stores is a “priority” of the modernization efforts, Williams said.
Keeping inventory behind the counter means customers need to know what they want as soon as they go in, leaving little room to browse for and try new products, said Dyfferant, a musician and videographer who didn’t provide a last name and whose neighborhood store is 251.
The Plexiglas is “not justified, but that’s just how it has always been,” Dyfferant said. “It’s sad, but this is what people in these types of areas do, this is what we’re used to.”
Williams agreed customers may not have a positive experience with these stores, which is why she said the authority is now looking to make changes.
A select few stores like 331 serve as “sandboxes” for what modernized ABC outposts could look like, Williams said. The authority said it’s using market demand analysis, community feedback and data on store locations to determine what stores should look and feel like in the future, a process Williams said is more in the “trial and error” phase right now.
The goal is for all stores to have a unified look, much like Starbucks, Williams said, while incorporating local personalities. Virginia Beach is more of a tourist town that sells more vodka, while Northern Virginia is a metropolitan area where customers lean more toward bourbon. And Richmond is a food and craft beverage hotspot, which she said is why Store 331 and one Midlothian location have received renovations in recent years.
The Midlothian location was renovated in summer 2021 after Virginia ABC partnered with a New York firm in 2019 to design multiple layout options for stores, said Jennifer Burke, director of retail operations for ABC, in an email.
The renovations included a luxury counter, a special area behind the register where all the store’s most expensive bottles, some costing in the hundreds to thousands of dollars, are stored. But Williams said customers had the “worst kind of reaction to” the feature, expressing dislike for the flow it gave the store.
“We’re not gonna do that in any more stores,” Williams said.
From agency to authority
ABC’s transition from an agency to an authority in 2018 is one of the main reasons Williams said the modernization process is now underway, as it now has more flexibility when it comes to budgeting and investment choices.
An authority is an independent political subdivision of state government. Both the Virginia Lottery and the Virginia Tourism Corporation are authorities. ABC became one after Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, and former Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, passed a bill in 2015 allowing it to operate more like a business, exempt from requirements of the Virginia Public Procurement Act, Personnel Act and Information Technology Act.
Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell had pushed to privatize ABC early in his term. But his proposals faced major opposition and flopped.
“Why would you want to give up a monopoly?” Albo asked in 2015 during a floor speech in support of his plan to transform the operation into an authority.
The authority is now taking a holistic approach to deciding what communities want or need ABC to be, said Williams. The hope is that it will change the long-running perception of ABC “as a monopolistic enforcing agency.”
New executive team members are a “driving force” in the modernization process as well, said ABC spokesperson Patrick Kane in an email. Williams was brought in around the same time as Chief Transformation Officer Elizabeth Chu to do a comprehensive review of what she called “everything that is ABC, from retail to its systems to its data allocations to how we actually express ourselves in the commonwealth.”
No timeline or budget
The modernization process is in its early stages, and the authority expects to spend the next 18 months to two years analyzing data and feedback across all stores, Williams said. During that time, new construction and changes will primarily center around “sandbox” stores while the authority cements a full modernization program.
ABC offered no specific overall numbers as to how much the program will cost and how long it will take.
“We don’t have documents that outline the entire modernization process, as it is an initiative presently being defined and budgeted by the authority,” Kane said.
The authority grossed a total of $1.4 billion in revenue and contributed over $600 million to the state’s general fund this year, according to an ABC press release.
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