Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pay to Play

In the adult beverage world there is significant volume created through bribes. We all like to think that the beer, wine and liquor offered in our favorite bars, restaurants and retail shops are available due to their merits and am exacting selection process by the owners/staff. This is certainly true of many establishments but those with lesser standards often accept cash/trade to promote certain brands.
This practice is illegal. [If you're interested, you can read the actual wording from the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (p. 145) at the bottom of this post, I won't bore you here.] However, there is little motivation, or ability, to stop it.
Few announce the payoff loudly but most do not hide their willingness to play. I have been shaken down on numerous occasions, even in front of other sales reps in the wine section of a grocery store. "I love that wine and we'd be happy to feature it but you'll have to write us a check." Part of the payment would have gone to print the circulars where our wine(s) would be advertised. The rest was a flat out bribe. We did business with this company but never got displays or ads.
In restaurants the payola scheme guarantees a glass pour, the highest profile (and volume) option.
On the beer side, the pay to play involves draft taps, again highly visible and big volume. Sometimes a large company will simply pay enough to get a dedicated tap (or three). This gives them the decision-making power to choose what beer is available on that tap. They can then place whatever swill they need to move to reach their goals.
No small wineries or local brewers can afford to play this game, the advantage belongs to the large producers and wholesalers. Consumers have less choice and smaller players are squeezed to the margins. Short of eavesdropping on all holders of liquor licenses and solicitors permits there is little that can be done. The problem is widespread but single instances hardly merit the effort required to prevent/punish these illegal acts.
What's the big deal?, you might ask. Not everyone participates and people can still choose to ignore the more generic beverages in favor of more diverse selections. However, there is damage being done to the consuming public every day. The effects are subtle and easy to overlook. Turn your attention to chain restaurants for the best example.
No, I am not accusing all of them of pursuing pay for play - though I can attest to the insane discounts that are required to get wines placed on lists, by the glass or not. What happens, slowly and insidiously, is that as less diversity remains, the power of familiarity becomes stronger. Consumers, often intimidated by wine (and now by the huge selection of beer and spirits as well), stick with the ones they know. Familiar labels are rarely esoteric or "indie" and their ubiquity leads to more orders and, consequently, to less support for lesser-known labels.
If you doubt my premise, go drive around an area with lots of chain restaurants. Count the number of independent, local establishments. I rest my case.
Though it is impossible to determine whether any given bar, restaurant or retailer is playing the payola game, try to support those that rotate their featured beverages with labels not seen stacked in the grocery store or viewed in ads on TV.

"It is unlawful for an industry member, directly or indirectly or through an affiliate, to induce a trade buyer to purchase the industry member's products, to the complete or partial exclusion of products sold or offered for sale by other persons in interstate or foreign commerce, by offering or giving a bonus, premium, compensation, or other thing of value to any officer, employee, or representative of the trade buyer. The bonus, premium, compensation, or other thing of value need not be offered or given for the purpose of directly inducing a trade buyer to purchase from the seller, but rather is applicable if an industry member induces officers, employees or representatives of the trade buyer to promote sales of the industry member's products and thereby indirectly induces the trade buyer to purchase from the industry member."