Montgomery County’s Department of Liquor Control Emphasizes Customer Service
By Lou Marmon
Gazette Newspapers April 4, 2012
After Prohibition, every State and many local jurisdictions established their own rules regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol. Many Americans bristle at the thought of additional layers of governmental oversight and the agency that regulates wine, beer and spirits is often subject to criticism. However, these local boards can also provide their constituents with some specific benefits.
Established in 1933, the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) has heard its share of complaints. Many of these issues are not really their responsibility but are a result of superseding State regulations. But there remain questions about availability, pricing, the ability to obtain special bottlings and the expertise of their employees.
Over the past several years, the DLC has actively addressed these concerns by becoming more consumer-oriented.
“The goal is to run the system like a private enterprise,” says Gus Montes de Oca, Chief of Operations. “We want each of our 24 stores to focus on taking care of our customers.”
The DLC has expanded their training with seminars lead by winemakers, distillers and other experts “so our staff can be a resource,” and they have instructed their employees to actively offer assistance.
“Some employees enjoy interacting with customers, and we encourage them to do so,” says Diane Wurdeman, Retail Operations Manager. “They will do whatever they can to fill particular requests, either by calling the other stores or us at the main office to hunt down special items.”
She tells the story of an employee who tracked down some wines for a wedding and then drove from store-to-store to get them for the customer in time for the reception.
Another of the lesser-known benefits of the DLC is its availability. Both Gus and Diane regularly answer numerous emails and calls asking for specific wines or spirits.
“If it is available in the State, we can usually get it for them, and often for less than what they would spend if they bought and shipped it themselves,” says Gus.
The DLC has a list of 300 to 400 highly sought after “allocated wines” such as California cult Cabernets and first-growth Bordeaux that are available via a waiting list to Montgomery County residents. Its large buying power means that the DLC usually gets a bigger share of these wines than other areas of the country. And because they are service oriented rather than profit focused, the mark-ups on these more expensive wines are less than usual. This also holds for rarer spirits such as limited edition bourbon and single malt scotch.
The DLC is very sensitive to pricing with mark-ups of 28 percent for wine and 18 percent for spirits over wholesale, which are comparable to or lower than most private stores. They also pass on any savings like the recent shipment of Talisker 18 year Single Malt Scotch priced $30 less than anywhere else in the country. And when the high scores given to the 2005 Bordeaux resulted in their prices all over the nation to skyrocket, the DLC sold its allocation for merely the standard mark up rather than increasing to the U.S. market prices.
“Because we are the ‘government’ we have to be better,” says Diane.
The director of the DLC, George F. Griffin, agrees. “People assume the government doesn’t do anything right,” he says. “So we work hard to prove them wrong.”
Future plans include store renovations to make them “a more welcoming environment,” additional stores, enhancing searchable online inventory and being able to email sale notifications to consumers. These changes will certainly make the benefits of the DLC less of a secret.