As of last month, it is now illegal for customers to buy alcoholic beverages at self-service checkout stands at Fresh & Easy stores or at any other grocer in California.
A state law prohibiting patrons from purchasing alcohol at self-service checkouts officially went into effect in October after grocery-store companies fought but lost a battle in court that essentially delayed the law’s implementation.
The legislation, known as AB 183, was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, with the regulation set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012, but an effort to overturn the law in court postponed enforcement.
In December 2011, The California Grocers Association (CGA), a trade association representing 500 retail members that operate more than 6,000 food stores in California and Nevada, filed a petition with the California Third District Court of Appeals for a stay of enforcement through a writ of mandate.
Prior to the law going into effect, the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Department (ABC) issued an industry advisory, clarifying that simply “monitoring” customers during alcohol purchases at self-service checkout stands located on the licensee’s physical premises “does not satisfy the language and intent of the statute.”
The advisory noted that “no alcoholic beverages may be sold through any checkout stand that is enabled to allow operation by the customer at the time the customer’s check-out transaction commences or at any point during the check-out process.”
According to the law’s language, allowing customers to purchase alcohol through self-service checkouts “facilitates the purchase of alcoholic beverages by minors,” permits heavily intoxicated customers to purchase alcohol in violation of state law and “allows greater theft of alcoholic beverages, thereby depriving the state of tax revenues.”
CGA representatives, however, claimed that the language in AB 183 is vague and confusing. The association also said the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is primarily behind the bill. CGA states that there is no evidence that links self-service checkouts to an increase in alcohol sales to minors.
While the law applies to all retail stores with self-service checkouts, the main business affected is Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, which is nonunion and is the only grocer in California that has based its business model on a self-service-checkout-only system. In September, British-owned Tesco announced that investment firm The Yucaipa Companies is purchasing 150 Fresh & Easy stores in the United States, while about 50 are expected to close.
For years, Fresh & Easy has argued that its on-hand staff members have been notified if a customer attempts to purchase alcohol and it has been the company’s policy to require that employees check a customer’s identification.
Still, the new law requires that customers take no part in the transaction, even scanning, and only employees are allowed to conduct such alcohol purchases. The law also requires that all retail stores post signs to notify customers of the regulation.
It’s unclear if the law will now force Fresh & Easy to have at least one fully staffed checkout stand in its stores. At most other grocery stores, customers buying alcohol will be directed to fully staffed checkout lanes that are already in operation.
Phone calls left and emails sent by the Signal Tribune to Fresh & Easy representatives were not returned by press time.
Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for CGA, said in a phone interview that the association’s goal now is to make sure its members are complying with state law.
“We are now working with our members to make sure everyone’s in full compliance,” he said. “Because of the ramifications of not being in compliance, by and large, as far as we can tell, I think everybody’s pretty much in compliance.”
John Carr, spokesperson for ABC, said the agency now has the right to enforce the law that carries misdemeanor charges and the possibility of having an alcohol license revoked for violations. ß