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Drinking Better

Sales of liquor are up in Idaho, but not because people are drinking more


When Howard Wasserstein walks into the liquor store on Broadway Avenue and Beacon Street, he sees a "big jewelry store."

"You're thinking, 'What? How can a liquor store look like a jewelry store?' But you'll see. Designing liquor stores is one of my favorite things," he said.

As deputy director for Procurement, Distribution and Retail Operations for the Idaho State Liquor Division, Wasserstein's job begins as soon as the delivery truck stocks the warehouse. It continues as products head through retail stores around Idaho, right up to the moment when a customer takes a bottle off the shelf. Wasserstein said he's one of those people who's happy to go to work every day.

Stepping into the 9-month-old Broadway Avenue liquor store (which is in the same strip mall as an Albertsons and a Noodle Express), Wasserstein pointed out how his comparison makes sense. Faux hardwood covers the floors, the ceiling is painted a deep black and track lighting accents the room. Deep cherry wood shelves hold more than 1,000 glass bottles.

"You don't see the lights embedded on the shelving units, but they reflect down and create a waterfall effect," he said. "It shines on the bottles like it would light up the box in a jewelry store."

There is a stark difference between the Broadway store and how liquor stores around the state have always looked.

"They were a little bit more black-and-white, government-looking—what you'd expect from a state-run liquor store," Wasserstein said. "Everything would be kind of blah-blah carpeting, overhead florescent lighting, and you couldn't tell who worked there because there was no uniform code."

As liquor sales in Idaho continue a yearslong upward trend, Wasserstein works to transform more stores into glossy retail centers like the one on Broadway. It's an effort to create a friendlier customer environment that maximizes revenue from liquor sales.

So far, the investment is paying off.

A Better Taste

The night before Thanksgiving 2014, a mysterious fire started in the strip mall formerly housing the liquor store on Broadway Avenue. Five businesses were destroyed.

At the time, the Liquor Division had already secured a new storefront and scrambled to get the new location up and running. Wasserstein set up whatever shelves he could get his hands on and made signs out of printer paper. Three weeks to the day of the fire, the new store was open for business, though it looked nothing like it does now.

With so much new inventory flooding the liquor retail market, the store needed a change anyway. Idaho State Liquor Division Director Jeff Anderson called it a "phenomenon."

"There's been this explosion of Stock Keeping Units—different brands, sizes, flavors," he said. "In order to meet the market, a store could have been shelved with 600 items. Now, it's more like 1,300. That requires more shelf space and room."