Saturday, August 7, 2010

Swipe, Smile, Breathe: Wine Vending Machines in the USA.

Move by Pennsylvania supermarkets sparks controversy.

Pennsylvania, one of the last few states in the nation where liquor sales are state-controlled, has kicked off a plan to sell wine in grocery stores via vending machines. Consumers would need a valid I.D., a matching picture taken by an onsite video camera, and a puff of breath in the direction of a no-touch air sensor to complete the purchase.

Whether you consider this a convenient or a cumbersome way to buy your bottle of Chianti for the evening’s meal, many Pennsylvanians seem supportive, according to news reports, if only because it saves them a trip to a state-run liquor outlet. Grocery stores cannot sell wine off the shelf under the rules of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB).

Japan and Europe have beer vending machines, but the two prototype machines now in Pennsylvania are believed to be the first supermarket wine kiosks in the U.S.

A spokesman for the ISSU, the union representing state liquor store managers, complained that “cigarettes are banned from being sold in vending machines in Pennsylvania supermarkets and yet Americans’ number one drug of choice will now be vended only in Pennsylvania by the PLCB.”

Putting it a bit more directly, the union’s vice president, David Wanamaker, said: “Alcohol is not a Red Box DVD—it is the most abused drug in every town, city and state in the USA.”

Keith Wallace, president of the Wine School of Philadelphia, had other objections. “The process is cumbersome and assumes the worst in Pennsylvania’s wine consumers—that we are a bunch of conniving underage drunks,” he told Kathy Matheson of The Associated Press.  Liquor board members, he added, “are clearly detached from reality of they think these machines offer any value to the consumer.”
And the CEO of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, presumably with a straight face, chipped in with concerns about the machine’s ability to prevent sales to minors.

One of the major drawbacks is that the kiosk is not really a genuine vending machine, but rather a large box full of wine bottles, attached to a camera, with a live person at the other end—a state employee in Harrisburg who approves each and every remote sale only after verifying a visual match with the photo I.D.

The wine vending machines represent “a technology kludge for bad laws,” and “an attempt to solve the age-old problem of underage drinking with new technology” according to Damon Brown at BNET.
Brown offers 3 suggestions:

--Facial recognition software—“A much more reasonable solution for the vending machines than a person sitting on the other end of a camera.”

--Program tweaks—“Japan now gives out magnetic strips that, when placed on IDs, allow customers to confirm their identity… Pennsylvania has spent money on the machines, but hasn’t come up with an elegant solution to identity.”

--Just change the law—Most state allow wine sales in grocery stores, and the earth hasn’t cleaved in twain.  This Rube Goldberg-style contraption, as the store managers union has characterized it, has yet to prove that it is worth the money.

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