Viewpoint - November 17, 2010

Editorial: The difficult decision on BevMo

There are no doubt plenty of local residents and merchants who are disappointed that on a 3-2 vote the City Council approved a new Beverages and More (BevMo) store on El Camino Real last week.

But clearly the three council members who voted in favor, Rich Cline, Andy Cohen and John Boyle, felt they had no basis for making the findings that having an additional liquor store was NOT a convenience to Menlo Park residents. The requirement is a vague and unhelpful legal standard, and it worked against those who wanted to put a lid on opening an additional liquor store in town.

Now it will be up to Menlo Park shoppers to vote with their feet and support locally owned liquor establishments like Beltramo's, the company that helped gain wide public support for their contention that BevMo would be an unfair competitor.

For its part, BevMo says its 9,000-square-foot store at the old Chili's location will provide jobs and only make life easier for the many Menlo Park customers who now shop at BevMo's Redwood City store. The company also agreed to a request by council member Heyward Robinson, who along with Kelly Fergusson, voted against BevMo, to lock up its display of miniature "airplane" liquor bottles to keep them away from potential underage shoplifters. And the city will reconsider BevMo's use permit in two years, rather than the traditional three, a stipulation the company readily agreed to.

There were good arguments against adding another liquor outlet to the 17 already doing business in Menlo Park, although whether one modest-sized BevMo will cause any of them to suffer greatly is far from certain. Costco and other nearby chain and big-box stores sell virtually the same merchandise as BevMo, and sometimes at even lower prices. Despite the proximity of such competitors, including the Redwood City BevMo, Menlo Park stores like Beltramo's, Draeger's and others have survived by providing superior quality, selection and extraordinary service.

Some customers might trickle away to BevMo, but only if local businesses are complacent. Long-established merchants have a great selling advantage in Menlo Park, with its discriminating shoppers who often look for quality first, not price. Local stores have a compelling story to tell and should tell it again and again to their customers via the myriad information channels available today.

Look back at the rebirth of Kepler's Books and Magazines in 2005 when Clark Kepler was ready to throw in the towel, and actually did for a few days. But the community refused to let it happen and now Kepler's is working hard to stave off competition from behemoths like Amazon and other major online retailers that often have an unfair advantage over local booksellers.

Now Mr. Kepler is president of Hometown Peninsula, a group of businesses, including The Almanac, which is promoting a Shop Local campaign that points out why dollars spent in our community stay here, while those spent at big-box chains go back to the home office. When money circulates here, local jobs are created because merchants live and do business here. In small towns like Menlo Park, shoppers can get to know local store owners, who are eager to serve them and are uniquely able to provide the kind of personal service that is not available at a chain store.

Menlo Park merchants can also avail themselves of a new website and directory that allows them to conduct all kinds of business online at virtually no cost. Similar sites are up and running in Palo Alto and Mountain View. All the sites are supported by Hometown Peninsula, the Chambers of Commerce, the three cities and Embarcadero Media, the Almanac's Palo Alto-based parent company.

Using these and other channels, local merchants and BevMo can engage in healthy competition that will only be good for consumers. There was strong sentiment that another liquor store was the last thing Menlo Park needed. But the law imposes a great restraint (and legal risk) on city governments in these circumstances. The council majority cannot be faulted for being concerned about that risk, nor should BevMo be faulted for wanting to have a store in Menlo Park.


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