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This Poll's for You 

Utahns have another avenue to vent their liquor frustrations, but it only goes so far.

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click to enlarge RAY HOWZE
  • Ray Howze

New year, new you. At least that's what Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could be thinking.

At its monthly meeting in December, the department revealed data from the first responses it received in its new customer-satisfaction survey. The result: With more than 2,300 people answering the questionnaire since its October launch, the DABC was rated as a 3 on a 1-to-5 scale for customer satisfaction. That's right in the middle, but it doesn't quite tell the whole story.

Hoping to improve on the old written comment cards, the DABC's deputy director, Cade Meier, says he wants the online tool to become a department mainstay and offer customers a routine way to provide feedback. Meier previously told City Weekly he wants it to be a method "to address concerns, evaluate if we can fix things and give them a way to vent their frustrations."

And vent they did. Here is just a sample of the comments the DABC received and shared with commissioners:

"Lack of refrigeration for beer. Deal killer for excellent beer."

"The beer selection is way too small. The hours open need to be extended beyond 7 p.m."

"The staff are amazing but they are overworked and underpaid [and] it is apparent there is not enough of them for the workload. Please hire more staff for their sake and ours. I have also heard, on the news, you were considering removing the information placards; please don't as I rely on these for my purchases. Thank you for listening."

"For a highly profitable operation, this simply sucks. You guys/gals need to [be like] the Apple Store, not post-WWII Eastern Europe. Please get your act together and treat your customers with some simple respect, product knowledge and clean and delightful environment ... with some parking that is not brim full of homeless people begging. It's simply creepy that you allow this highly profitable enterprise to wallow in such lowbrow treatment. You should be ashamed of yourselves!"

"Long lines and being treated like a second-class citizen by the Legislature and DABC leave me extremely dissatisfied. I appreciate you conducting this survey, but you need to drill down to the core issues which you are not addressing with the questions so far."

Some of those comments might not be surprising to shoppers or DABC staff, and Meier says he'd like to use the comments to help spur potential changes in state stores. The department, though, is limited by the Legislature, which determines its budget and promulgates rules, like the one that forbids liquor advertising.

The customer observations aren't new, Meier says. "I am hopeful that [the survey] may send a more clear picture of what people are looking for, and I view it as just another tool in our toolbox that we're trying to use and leverage to our advantage."

Some requests, like more staffing, boil down to the budget. If the DABC wants to hire more people, it would need more money from lawmakers—and that's easier said than done, Meier explains.

"I don't think the people are unaware of the challenges we face," he says. "I'm always appreciative of the working relationship we currently have [with the Legislature] and am grateful for it, but I am looking for ways to better communicate our situation."

Tanner Lenart, a lawyer who specializes in helping clients navigate Utah's liquor laws, says that while the survey could help promote change, the problem lies in how the DABC interprets state law.

A lot of the comments, such as having cold beer in stores, could be construed as promoting the consumption of alcohol—a no-no in the eyes of the state. "Is that going to help people drink it more quickly?" she asks.

"There are some things that are very obvious, blatant, statutory, bright-line rules and then where I come in, is helping with interpretation of those statutes," Lenart says. "Of course, my clients, we're always trying to interpret the law to favor industry, whereas it seems like a lot of the DABC's tendency is to default to the most conservative vantage point because that's their job, that's reflective of our conservative Legislature."

That's perhaps why, she says, some of these requests haven't been implemented before. Things like long lines and more in-store help, however, could be improved with money. In 2016, for example, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, introduced a bill that would have allowed the DABC to keep 15 percent of its gross profits. Previously, the DABC was required to turn over all of its profits to the state. Mayne's bill failed to pass. In 2017, she sponsored Senate Bill 155 that allowed the DABC to keep $1 million for employee incentives, equipment purchases and technology upgrades. The law passed and has been in effect since July 2017.

At the same time, liquor sales have been surging. In July, the DABC announced its sales for fiscal year 2017-18 reached a record of nearly $454 million, a 6 percent increase from the previous year. Final totals for the current fiscal year won't be available until after June 30, but sales could reach even higher.

The DABC plans to leave the online questionnaire up indefinitely. The agency has placed small placards and business cards at checkout lines to promote the online feedback tool. While the comments might not directly lead to changes, Meier says they don't hurt, warts and all. He adds they haven't noticed any trends regionally yet, but that could be because the system is still in its infancy. Rural stores tended to receive a higher numerical score—such as a 4 or 5—but some only received as many as seven responses. Once it collects enough data, the DABC can use it to help make decisions on where to allocate resources, time and money.

Lenart points out "just the fact they're even doing the survey is a positive step." But as for the casual consumer's or business owner's seemingly futile hope the DABC changes its ways, it's more of the same for now.

In the meantime, if consumers can be more specific in their comments, Meier says, there's a better chance they'll be a catalyst for DABC changes.

"The yelling and the screaming is fine, but I'm really looking for specifics," Meier concludes. "If we can get down to having a real conversation, that's the most helpful. I get that people feel passionate and feel strongly about what they're trying to say, but when they get more specific in what they're looking for, it's truly helpful for us to address it."

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