When Minnesota bars and restaurants were forced to close their public seating areas in mid-March, it was an unanticipated windfall for municipal liquor stores in the lakes area.
Lakes Liquor, Detroit Lakes' municipal off-sale liquor store, has seen its monthly sales totals rise between 30-40% during the COVID-19 pandemic from where they were at this point last year, according to store manager Randy Buhr.
"It’s been very busy," Buhr said. "Since March 17th we’re up about 40% over this time last year ... a normal increase would be maybe 5%."
Despite the significant uptick in sales, however, the number of actual receipts running through the store's registers has remained fairly steady, he added — which essentially means that customers are filling their carts rather than just picking up a couple of bottles or a case to get through the week.
"I would think that people are trying to stay at home more, because our ticket count is only up 3% over that same time frame," Buhr said. "That tells me people are stocking up, or buying for others."
This increase in sales volume comes despite the fact that the store is closing down a couple of hours earlier each night, he added.
"We've cut back on our closing time," Buhr said. "Monday through Saturday, we close at 8 instead of 10 p.m. Other than that our hours are normal."
In fact, he said, they've actually had to hire extra staff to keep up with the workload.
"We're so busy with customers, and then we have more cleaning to do than normal," Buhr explained, noting that the staff regularly wipes down service counters and card machines, and sanitizes everything more frequently.
"We have shields set up at each of the tills," he said. "Everyone is wearing masks, and we keep sanitary wipes to wipe down the carts and door handles, and pretty much everything people touch."
The store currently employs five full-time and 15 part-time staff, Buhr said, which adds up to, on average, "about 600 man hours more than last year."
The Lake Park Liquor Store reported a similar increase in its off-sale receipts over the past couple of months, though the on-sale side of the bar has essentially dried up since the shutdown.
"I would say our off-sale total is up about 40% from where we were last year at this time," said store manager Carly Olson, "but being that our on-sale is shut down, we're definitely not making what we used to make (overall). We're normally a very busy bar, with a pretty hefty on-sale. That's really hurting us."
Still, the store's two full-time and six part-time employees are trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation by taking advantage of the bar's temporary closure to do an extensive remodeling project.
"We've been doing a lot of painting and deep cleaning, and extensively remodeling the bar area," Olson said, adding that the entire staff has been working on the project as their schedule allows.
"We never did reduce our hours," she said. "We're still open until 10 at night. It's been pretty busy on the weekends."
The Ogema Liquor Store has seen an even bigger jump in off-sale receipts, averaging between 60-70% since the pandemic shutdown began, according to store manager Betty Ann King.
"We've had a lot more customers coming in," she said. "We've added a lot of variety to our stuff in there, because of demand."
With the on-sale side of the business shut down temporarily, however, the store had to let one of its three employees go, King said. "She's collecting unemployment now."
The store's remaining employees have been dividing the shifts up equally between themselves, King said, with each of them taking the day shift one week, and the night shift the next.
"We stay open until 10 at night," she said. "I think a lot of the other (liquor) stores around here close at 8, so people come in here right up until we close."
The volume of sales receipts has stayed pretty steady, even on what used to be their "slow" nights — in fact, King added, on one of those so-called slow nights last week, they pulled in over $1,200.
"We're still managing to stay afloat yet," she said.
Lakes Liquor March 2020 sales
All numbers are taken from the monthly City Council agendas. The number in parenthesis is the difference above or below 2019 numbers.
- Sales current: $662,649.63 (up $180,958.47 or 37.57%, from March 2019)
- Sales year to date: $1,607,120.54 (up $248,517.86 or 18.29%, from March 2019)
- Customers current: 20,289 (up 1,001 or 5.19%, from March 2019)
- Customers year to date: 57,124 (up 2,382 or 4.35%, from March 2019)