After-church shoppers are in for an unusual sight today at grocery stores around Columbus: beer coolers no longer darkened by a decades-old blue law that prohibited package sales on the Sabbath.
It's not a mirage, but the dawn of Sunday alcohol sales, a measure approved by 58 percent of Muscogee County voters last month. Columbus joined a large group of metropolitan jurisdictions choosing to "go wet" on Sundays since the Georgia General Assembly last year decided to leave it up to individual communities.
So folks longing for libations won't have to schlep across the Chattahoochee River to pick up that bottle of booze or pre-game six pack. Beer and wine will be sold in supermarkets, and many liquor stores have grudgingly agreed to open their doors, if for no other reason than to keep their current clientele.
"You can't let customers go to other stores and see what's going on," said Chris Hatchett, who manages Wild Bill's Party Shop on Buena Vista Road. "They may like it and never come back."
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Local package outlets had loudly opposed enacting Sunday sales, saying the profits wouldn't cover the costs of an additional day of business.
"We're not going to make any money," said Ralph Smith, owner of Mr. B's Liquor, Beer & Wine on 13th Street. "The overhead is going to cost us more than what we make in sales."
Smith had been one of the most outspoken opponents of Sunday sales, but like many of his competitors he has decided to open his doors. "I've got to prove to myself that we're not going to make any money," he said.
Of the 11 local liquor stores contacted by the Ledger-Enquirer last week, eight said they would be open on Sundays, while three planned to remain closed.
"You've got to give your customer what they want," said Jimmy Hall, owner of the Kick-N-Chicken liquor store on Warm Springs Road. "I just feel like that the people have spoken, and that's what they wanted."
The new law permits package sales between 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., but the hours of operation at local establishments will vary widely.
Mr. B's plans to remain open until 5:30 p.m., while Wild Bill's will close at 8 p.m.
Several liquor stores, like Peachtree Package, are planning to open Sundays on a trial basis.
"We're going to open in the month of December, and if it's not beneficial financially we will not open up in January," owner Dan Barbaree said. "If this doesn't generate enough revenue, I'm getting old and I'm not going to work down here and kill myself."
Still others, like Crazy Cecil's Party Shop, planned to remain closed for the foreseeable future on Sundays.
"I guess I'm just from the old school," said Martha Miller, whose B & C Beverages on 10th Avenue won't be opening today. "It probably will cost us in the beginning until everything levels out, but I'm just totally against it."
Liquor store owners said they had heard mixed reviews from other jurisdictions about the success of Sunday sales. Mac Thurston has opened his Mac's Beer and Wine in midtown Atlanta every Sunday this year -- including Easter -- and has seen level sales.
"We are simply taking six days of sales and spreading them over seven days," said Thurston, a former president of the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association. "The smart operator should probably be open for competitive reasons. In Atlanta, we found that there were just too many outlets and you just about had to be open."
The Beverage Mart in Pine Mountain, Ga., began opening on Sundays recently and has seen "pretty steady" sales to local customers as well as tourists visiting Callaway Gardens, said manager Melanie Gibson. Some business, however, has merely shifted from Saturday to Sunday, Gibson added.
It remains to be seen what impact Sunday alcohol sales in Columbus will have on neighboring Phenix City. Conventional wisdom suggests supermarkets like the Publix on Summerville Road and the Piggly Wiggly just across the river from downtown Columbus would lose some amount of business from Georgia residents who forgot to stock up on a Saturday.
But the city's finance director, Stephen Smith, said the city has projected the same amount of alcohol tax proceeds from beer sales -- about $635,000 a year -- despite the lifting of the blue law in Columbus. Smith said alcohol sales aren't a major revenue source for the city, noting the city takes in more than $17 million a year in sales tax. He said the Piggly Wiggly could be impacted because of its proximity to downtown Columbus, but the city expects its growing population and new businesses to offset any losses.
"I would anticipate a very small difference, but I don't think that huge numbers of Georgia citizens are driving to Phenix City to buy liquor on Sunday afternoon," Smith said. "I don't see (the new law) changing any significant amount of behavior at all. To me it's a non-issue."
But Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, had a different prediction.
"The behavioral shift is they'll be buying in Georgia instead of Alabama," Tudor said. "Your market is the poster child for keeping sales in Georgia, just because it was so convenient to make those purchases. There will be a point where retailers will have to do a decent job of educating their customers that they will no longer have to travel to do that."