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New Hanover County liquor sales were up in 2020, but most imbibed at home

Updated: Jan. 4, 2021 at 3:33 PM EST
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - In early April, the New Hanover County ABC board voted to allow liquor-by-the-drink customers return a portion of their unopened products, as the state reeled from shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

But despite that move and other pandemic-related actions such as reducing store hours and drastically limiting the number of customers in each store, the county’s for-profit alcohol distribution system outperformed its 2019 sales.

“COVID has brought a unique operating venue for us,” said General Manager Charles Hill, “because there’s no telltale book on what’s the right way, what’s the wrong way to do this. And, you know, we...like most retailers, we’ve been playing it by ear.”

WECT looked at daily sales records for January through November for both 2019 and 2020. At the end of November, 2020 sales were ahead by $3,332,494.16, or more than 7%.

Sales data shows the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on county liquor sales.
Sales data shows the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on county liquor sales.(WECT)

But nearly all of that growth took place inside ABC retail stores—the agency’s liquor-by-the-drink sales were down over the same period by $426,214.23, or nearly 24%.

“What we’ve seen, the restaurant and bar industry has taken a great hit with COVID, our mixed beverage sales are down, our retail stores are picking up some of the lost revenues,” Hill said, “because people are, you know, they’re staying home. They’re, you know, they’re partaking in there.”

He says that makes sense—where people may have ordered a drink or two with dinner when dining out every month, they are mixing their own cocktails at home.

He says it hasn’t been an even exchange every month, but that is generally the trend.

Sales data shows the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on county liquor sales.
Sales data shows the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on county liquor sales.(WECT)
Sales data shows the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on county liquor sales.
Sales data shows the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on county liquor sales.(WECT)

“So we’ve seen a flip-flop, and that’s pretty much been the case every month, since this COVID pandemic hit us,” he said.

There was also a notable increase in sales right at the “start” of the pandemic in mid-March, when the first cases hit New Hanover County.

That month saw $4,825,686 in sales across the county system, a figure typically only seen in the summer months, and a nearly 27% increase over March 2019.

The pandemic appears to have had an effect on the ABC system’s most popular days, including Independence Day weekend: Sales were down $79,482 during the July 4th spike.

But Thanksgiving week, which is one of the highest grossing time periods, was almost exactly the same, with 2019 seeing just $36.76 more in sales than 2020.

Hill, who has been with the New Hanover County ABC system for more than two decades, says he’s heard from customers that they are still celebrating—just at home.

“That’s been the big thing here this year, people are learning to they are adapting and learning to celebrate holidays at home, you know, with their families,” he said. “And that’s what everybody’s had to do this year is adapt.”

The ABC stores in the county have adapted too. They’ve put up plexiglass, continued to limit the number of people inside...even below state mandates, and Hill says they are hoping to see continued use of their senior and high-risk customer store at 6009 Market Street.

“It has been a big success. I’ve talked with some of the customers that come in, they feel less stressed when they come in,” Hill said.

Going into 2021, he says they will continue to adapt as consumer needs and preferences change and potentially go back to pre-pandemic patterns once the vaccine is widely available.

“Our hearts go out to the bars and restaurants because they’ve taken a huge hit. And you know, with New Hanover County being a tourist town and being known for all its great restaurants and bars and stuff like that, it’s...we just hate to see it, you know, what they’re going through and and hopefully they can recover next year and everything to get back to normal.”

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