Mass. Liquor Stores Fear Sales Tax Will Send Customers Across The Border

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Shamrock Liquor sits four or five miles from the New Hampshire border. The package store's proximity to the neighboring state is a problem for manager Joe Comeau.

New Hampshire has no sales tax.  So Comeau is afraid, starting Saturday when Massachusetts starts taxing retail alcohol by 6.25 percent, that his customers will drive those extra few miles to save money.

"I can’t afford to advertise," Comeau says, "because what I’m advertising is the gross discrepancy in my price with the state of New Hampshire!"

(Curt Nickisch/WBUR)
A sign at Shamrock Liquors in Haverhill bemoans the new state sales tax for alcohol, which has store owners fearing customers will head for tax-free New Hampshire. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

On the front door of the store, Comeau has posted a sign expressing sarcastic thanks to our "fearless leader," Gov. Deval Patrick.

Haverhill retiree Bruce Miller nods in agreement with the sign as he pushes a cart out of the store. "Enough's enough. People are losing their jobs," he says. "For the small establishments around the borders — Methuen, Haverhill, Lawrence — it’s a killer."

It’s not just the liquor stores close to the border that are worried about losing sales.

"Certainly it won't be as immense an effect on us as it will be on the folks up near the border," says Joe Camm, who manages Gordon's Fine Wine and Liquors in Waltham. "But we're certainly going to have some effect."

Camm thinks some customers who are stocking up for a big party will now make a border run. "I know for people who are really money conscious, and of course it’s more so these days, they just have much more incentive to go up there," he says. "I would go up there. If I was a 30-pack shopper, if I was a 1.75 liter shopper, Smirnoff or Captain Morgan, I would definitely be getting all of that up there."

Not everyone think Mass. residents are going to change their booze-buying habits just because of six or so pennies on the dollar.

Merry Newhall, who lives in Haverhill and could go over, says she’s going to frequent the same place she does now.

"I don’t think it’s going to change that many people," Newhall says. "If they’re just going in buying a bottle of wine, I don’t people are going to waste their money on gas for that."

But the Massachusetts Package Stores Association says the new tax on liquor will clobber sales and cost hundreds of jobs, thus bringing in far less in tax revenue than the state anticipates.

Department of Revenue spokesman Rob Bliss says the state estimate already takes cross-border sales into account. "That estimate of $78 million is from the Department of Revenue, so obviously we stand by it," Bliss says, then adds, "I suppose a little less than a year from now, we’ll know how close we came."

Next year, the actual number may be cited more than you might think now. Because the state Package Stores Association is considering pushing a ballot initiative to repeal the alcohol sales tax.

This program aired on July 31, 2009.

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Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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