The 2021 StateWays Best Practices Awards

In June 2020, Montgomery County’s Alcohol Beverage Services (ABS) opened its first spirits-only store in rural Poolesville, a town of about 5,000, in an effort to recapture revenue that had been leaving the jurisdiction.

Our annual Best Practices Awards include the Best Overall Winner and the additional categories below. Congratulations to the 2021 winners!

Best Trade/Licensee Education Program

Montgomery County Alcohol Beverage Services

In January of this year, Alcohol Beverage Services in Montgomery County, Maryland, introduced a program for county employees called Responsible Beverage Service and Policy Training. Certification for external licensees, like retail store employees, was already in progress, says Melissa Davis, senior marketing officer of ABS in Montgomery County, but since Covid, a need arose to train those who suddenly found themselves in the alcohol consumption or sales business for special events.

Kathie Durbin, director of ABS, began contacting multiple agencies, such as the parks department, to see if they’d be interested. At first, getting these organizations to realize the value in RBSP wasn’t easy; they simply didn’t see the immediate benefit. It was likewise challenging to create a mandated four-hour (virtual) training that would hold people’s interest, Durbin says.

“We began to seek out things like the polling tool, breaking people out into virtual rooms and making it interactive,” Durbin says. “We really learned more about ourselves and what was working.”


Initial feedback was less than enthusiastic.

“At first it was, ‘We’re not interested and we don’t need this’, “ Durbin says. But once the virtual seminars got going — with engaging aspects such as voting in polls on phones, and focus groups both before and after training to explore challenges — Durbin saw attendees’ attitudes shift.

“They want to be involved, and they want to be proactive,” she says.


RBSP is a state-certified alcohol safety and awareness training that highlights factors that influence intoxication, signs to look for, intervention and de-escalation strategies, as well as an overview of Prohibition and Montgomery County alcohol policies. Certification is good for four years and includes a proctored exam.

Among the over 200 trainees so far are the Montgomery County Parks & Recreation, the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, the Montgomery County Park Police and frontline staff and Montgomery County’s Hospitality Program.

While the program began with training for ABS retail store employees, it soon expanded to businesses like hair salons, jewelry stores, golf courses and local theaters that desired to hold events involving alcohol. Then, in the early days of Covid, even more businesses and consumers sought temporary permissions to begin holding off-premise sales and picnics in the park.

“They didn’t even know they needed trainings,” Durbin says, “but so many things began to revolve around the outdoors and alcohol.”

In the near future, Durbin has plans to expand these efforts so they can scale properly. She aims to create what she calls an annual “train the trainer” program. She’s seen so much interest that she’s not sure how much longer they’ll have the capacity to keep training individuals. Even though in its current form it is as a state certification that is county-specific in many ways, she also sees the potential for someone to take the materials and adapt them to other counties.

“We are committed to education around drunk driving, underage drinking and binge drinking,” Durbin says. “This is just another piece of getting us where we need to be.”

Best Distribution Innovation

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

October 2020 saw a new distribution facility opened by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) in Philadelphia.

Operated by third-party logistics provider KLS, the new distribution center is a modern, expanded and secure facility that also offers far more efficient operations and a better location that the previous center.

With the former contracted Philadelphia distribution center constructed in 1969, we had reached a point where the facility was too small to continue to effectively serve our expanding base of licensees and Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores located in southeast Pennsylvania,” says Cliff McFarland, director of supply chain, PLCB. “Additionally, the outdated facility was becoming increasingly challenging and costly to update and maintain.”

As Michael Demko, executive director, PLCB, explains, the vision was a facility more optimally located for receiving and delivering goods, as well as equipped with structural and operational enhancements to support anticipated growth. The resultant distribution center is larger, technologically advanced, adaptable to change and more efficient to support PLCB distribution requirements for the next decade.

“Benefits of the new facility are improved efficiency in all areas of warehouse operations, reduced maintenance costs, improved handling of specialty products, more flexibility for delivery and routing and reduction in shipping errors,” Demko says.

The former PLCB distribution facility relied on an archaic picking platform comprised of three-miles worth of conveyor belts. The new facility has replaced the conveyor belts with a system of forklifts and electronic pallet jacks, and brand-new voice-picking that enables a faster and more accurate pick process.

“These enhancements have improved order accuracy, reduced damages and loss and enabled faster fulfillment and delivery of orders to stores and licensees,” McFarland says.

The new distribution facility is nearly 30% larger than the former, and allows PLCB to house almost double the amount of product — up to 1.5 million cases as compared with 850,000 before. The receiving operation is much more efficient, due to the increased number of dock doors — currently 40 fully functional dock doors with the ability to expand up to 90, as compared to the previous 18 — and a better physical layout.

Additionally, climate-controlled storage, a dedicated secure storage area for high-value product and the installment of a new, fully equipped fleet of trucks has enhanced the ability to receive and house products from vendors, and to deliver these products to an expanded number of stores and licensees.

“This facility also employs a continuous improvement program that emphasizes productivity and values employee input and growth,” McFarland says.

New technology touched every part of the new build. This has enabled the PLCB to more efficiently meet the needs of a broader customer base.

“In addition to a brand-new picking system that’s enabled the PLCB to pick and pack products faster and with greater accuracy, an all-new fleet of trucks that are now equipped with electric lift gates, GPS tracking and cameras have allowed the PLCB to deliver products to locations previously unable to be served while reducing damages and loss,” Demko says. “New technology has also enabled 100% audits on all inbound and outbound shipments.”

Best On-Premise Partnership

New Hampshire Liquor Commission

Promoting a safe and responsible drinking environment for customers is of the utmost importance to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission (NHLC). That’s why the NHLC partnered with Brown-Forman, one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies, to establish New Hampshire Mocktail Month.

“When we first came together with Brown-Forman in 2016, we wanted to create a new, innovative and impactful program for retail and on-premise customers along with licensees,” says NHLC Chairman Joseph Mollica.

What resulted was Live Free & Host Responsibly, a first-of-its-kind industry collaboration that has evolved over five years. Live Free & Host Responsibly is the umbrella program and New Hampshire’s inaugural “Mocktail Month” is the latest manifestation of that concept — designed to carry out the mission of helping to create a safer, more inclusive drinking culture.

As Mollica explains, Mocktail Month is a true collaboration between the NHLC, Brown-Forman and The Mocktail Project. Each organization plays a crucial role in its success.

“NHLC offers a platform in the state and connection with customers and the business community. Brown-Forman brings forth incredible brands like Old Forester, Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve and others to help capture consumer’s attention,” Mollica says. “The Mocktail Project is a mission-driven, grassroots movement that encourages a stigma-free environment, crafts specialty mocktails for consumers to enjoy and assists in recruitment and promotion.”

During January 2021, when the Mocktail Month took place, more than two dozen restaurants throughout New Hampshire featured specialty alcohol-free “mocktails” for purchase. In addition, the NH Liquor and Wine Outlets website featured Mocktail recipe guides to create and enjoy craft mocktails at home.

To incentivize restaurants to participate, NHLC offered the opportunity to save 15 percent on a single NH Liquor and Wine Outlet purchase up to $10,000.

“The creativity derived from the collaboration has been one of the most substantial benefits,” Mollica says. “It has always been imperative that we keep the program fresh and exciting in order to engage audiences that are exposed to so much noise.”

To that end, two years ago, Brown-Forman introduced the NHLC to Jesse Hawkins of the Mocktail Project, who has been an integral component of this program.

“Another one of the many benefits of working with an organization like Brown Forman is the resources and expertise in multiple areas of business, marketing and social and environmental responsibility,” Mollica says. “This program has certainly brought our organizations closer together, which ultimately benefits customers.”

New Hampshire Mocktail Month will continue in 2022 — and hopefully beyond — as the first annual New Hampshire Mocktail Month proved successful. NHLC also plans further collaborations with Brown-Forman to develop new concepts to promote safe and responsible alcohol consumption.

“And yes, we are in the beginning stages of yet another partnership that would be an industry-first,” Mollica says. “If you haven’t noticed, we enjoy being first at a lot of things in New Hampshire!” ¥

Best Technology Innovation

New Hampshire Liquor Commission

Technological innovations are the backbone of most industries, and the liquor industry is no exception. To enhance the overall experience of both customers and partners, NHLC invested in a new system by MoodMedia, which is a Muzak company, called Harmony.

This was in conjunction with launching a cooperative advertising program in September 2020 that consolidated several existing internal advertising programs into one, which also added both digital and direct mail components.

As NHLC Chairman Joseph Mollica explains, the Harmony system provided technical flexibilities that allow the coop advertising program to be more effective. The system also added greater reliability, increasing uptime per device, per store.

In addition, NHLC upgraded its display monitors, swapping out 42-inch monitors for 55-inch and 65-inch monitors. NHLC also began advertising on its new e-commerce website as well as email campaigns.

“The features of the system allow for a seamless integration of overhead audio advertisements, store announcements and music, while also being synchronized with the video displays for commercials featuring audio and video,” Mollica says. “Additionally, the systems lifted previous restrictions on uploading and managing all content media types easily and reliably. The delivery of high-fidelity content has been exceptional.”

Many features of the system allow NHLC to be flexible in offerings to advertisers. And the inventory across all stores may be organized by regions to further localize advertising options. The system also provides an easy-to-manage content template and library, improving how advertisers may see and approve their ads, and electively place them across a 40-store network.

As Mollica explains, outlet customers receive a seamless experience of overhead audio music, promotions and advertisements synchronized with video displays. The system eliminated conflicts between overhead audio and local displays, also emitting audio.

The most significant benefit from this new Harmony technology is the flexibility for advertising placement.

“The flexibility allows NHLC to utilize the inventory for self-promotion while also allowing the co-op advertising program to sell inventory to additional advertisers,” Mollica says. “Creating a different experience per store based on store size, average time in-store per consumer, a geographic region and many factors has been beneficial. Managing the entire process and the uptime of the system has become much easier due to the monitoring of all devices across all stores.”

NHLC anticipated advertisers to take advantage of video/audio ads rather than the previously static screen ads. It was also anticipated that creation of these ads may delay or diminish an advertiser’s ability to supply content. However, they have been repurposing video materials to easily create ads.

“In the future, the intent will be to utilize the technology to further enhance the in-store shopping experience for customers. Increasing the number of digital displays in stores, as well as the physical size, will improve communication with customers,” Mollica says. “The ability to diversify how individual display units are used within the same store further allows the commission to engage customers in a variety of manners at different points during their shopping journey.”

NHLC’s next step will be to integrate the displays in-store with live data connections to automate information communications. This may be used to update sale products, new releases, events, etc.

“Building an automated marketing channel can be an extremely powerful tool,” Mollica says. “Building in more intricate technology into touch displays that engage customers, and then connect with customers through their mobile devices, will be the next significant evolution.”

Best Retail Innovation

Montgomery County Alcohol Beverage Services

In June 2020, Montgomery County’s Alcohol Beverage Services (ABS) opened its first spirits-only store in rural Poolesville, a town of about 5,000, in an effort to recapture revenue that had been leaving the jurisdiction.

The Poolesville store only carries distilled spirits, while the 25 other Country-run ABS stores sell spirits plus beer and wine. Testing this new concept came with the hope that Poolesville shopper dollars would have a better chance at staying in the immediate area.

However, a main challenge was ensuring the town’s two existing beer and wine stores wouldn’t be negatively impacted, says Kent Massie, head of retail operations for Montgomery County. 

“They have been there for years,” Massie says. “If we come in with a store, I’m going to put one or both out of business — and that’s not what we want to do.”

Those stores also buy some of their product wholesale from the county, Massie adds, and he had no interest in installing competition next door.

“Our stores are still an extension of our warehouse for our licensees like restaurants,” he says. “Some are just reopening and don’t have the capital to buy it by the case.”

The Poolesville store’s sales were closely monitored to examine whether it could be a viable format for other locations in the county. Despite opening right as Covid hit — and confounded by the pandemic-related closure of the nearby White’s Ferry, which had brought many commuters through town — the store saw over $1 million in sales in its first year, besting projections of $850,000. Tracking efforts included using a Microsoft tool to measure SKU-level data by store and by location, to examine the store’s impact and its location on surrounding stores.

Massie also looked at whether licensee sales increased or decreased.

Staffing presented another challenge, as the location would be minimally staffed due to lower volume. The area’s employees are all union, Massey says, and their representatives were initially concerned about opportunities and benefits for its members. Further, the Poolesville store would be closed Sundays and carry different hours than the county’s 25 other stores.

Meetings eventually resolved union issues, but “we’re still trying to tinker and get everything right,” says Melissa Davis, senior marketing officer, ABS. Initial reception to the concept has been warm, however and many of the spirits in the store are made within Maryland, an aspect Davis and Massie are both proud of.

While Massie is pleased with the results so far, he was not interested in rushing into expansion plans until some time had passed. “We wanted to measure it for a full year before we did it in other areas,” Massie says. “We’ve said no in the past, but we’re now presenting this as an option to landlords, to put a spirits-only store in denser demographics.”

Davis believes that a large part of this effort succeeding comes in viewing it as an opportunity to work together with existing stores in the market. “When people come in and ask for a wine,” she says, “we can point them to a shop a few doors down or 300 feet away.”

Best Stakeholder Outreach

Iowa ABD

Throughout 2020, Iowa faced extreme challenges for the alcohol industry, says Jake Holmes, executive officer with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division. Under terrific pressure to communicate guidance that sometimes changed weekly, Holmes, along with a core team of about four others, seized the opportunity not only to educate alcohol licensees but also consumers.

Holmes says the efforts let his organization do its part to slow the spread of Covid-19 and keep people safe, while also ensuring that establishments were adhering to all regulations.

“As soon as reports about the pandemic started in Iowa, we knew there would be a huge impact on our stakeholders,” Holmes says, “and we needed a plan to communicate that information.”

The team immediately began to employ tracking metrics to measure whether its materials were landing in the right hands. When a new proclamation was released, the team developed a slew of communication materials, then tracked the open rate and web traffic for both the physical and online components.

“We saw web traffic jump,” Holmes says, “so we knew people had received the information, and we were also seeing it used in the market when establishments would post our infographics.”

The infographics — which contained information about social distancing, seating and mask requirements — were posted in retail establishments statewide. Holmes recalls that a particular infographic about seating requirements was especially challenging to convey succinctly and accurately. The latest proclamation had required that all eating or drinking in a restaurant or bar had to be done while seated.

“On its face, that seems simple,” Holmes explains, “but all these questions came up: What if I’m walking to a different table? Can I carry my drink?”

Among the many other aspects of the ABD’s outreach program were a steady stream of press releases about proclamation guidance, proclamation violations, enforcement efforts, and sales data; TV and radio pieces; and an opinion article that was picked up by the largest newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, that spoke to patrons. It read in part: “We need customers to take responsibility as well. We all have a role to play . . . Ask the establishment what precautions they are taking and adhere to their guidelines.”

To be as helpful as possible to stakeholders, ABD also shared tangential organizations’ information on its website. Not only proclamation changes but also related guidance from the TTB and state agencies that issue food permits. Further, the ABD offered multiple free Zoom presentations for groups such as the Iowa Restaurant Association, Department of Inspections and Appeals and downtown entertainment district partnerships — another way Holmes’ team disseminated information to large groups to ensure licensees throughout the state understood the ever-shifting rules and regulations. Much of this information was also shared on its social media channels.

Looking ahead, Holmes says the department will continue to draw on these experiences, and analyze what did and didn’t work. He says he is proud of the team and all it accomplished under such pressure.

“I think we were pushed out of our comfort zone and did a great job,” Holmes says. “It builds our confidence for the next thing we need to tackle.”


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