Wine kiosks back to work

| Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011

All 32 wine vending kiosks installed at supermarkets across Pennsylvania are expected to be back in operation today, following a shutdown of as long as six weeks for repairs.

In Western Pennsylvania, machines in 10 Giant Eagle and Shop 'n Save stores reopened within the last week, Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the state Liquor Control Board, said Tuesday.

Eight other local machines, plus the rest of the devices statewide, are to return to the business of dispensing bottles of wine by today, said Jim Lesser, chief executive officer of Simple Brands LLC. The Conshohocken, Montgomery County-based company developed the high-tech kiosks that check each customer's identification and sobriety before making a sale.

"They have been working as they are supposed to" since being fixed, Lesser said.

The state Liquor Control Board shut the kiosks statewide Dec. 21 due to reports of malfunctions. Doors on the machines failed to open, and sometimes the screens on the devices would freeze at the same time, Lesser said.

Problems occurred in about one out of every 170 transactions, he said.

Lesser said the machines, built to comply with Pennsylvania's restrictive alcohol sales laws, contained some malfunctioning resistors, electronic components that run on a circuit board and control the power supply to the machines.

Representatives of Simple Brands and a Plano, Texas-based manufacturer have been replacing the resistors, work that requires three to four hours per machine, he said.

"Customers have received them well," Witalec said of the reopened machines, which cost about $100,000 each and stock 500 bottles of wine. The state Liquor Control Board won't pay Simple Brands for making the repairs, nor will the vendor receive compensation for the time they were out of order, she said.

The kiosks sold more than 31,500 bottles of wine through Dec. 18, for total sales of more than $330,000, according to board figures.

Customers use a touch screen to select a wine, insert a driver's license or other identification card, swipe a payment card and blow into a screened hole in the device from about 6 inches away to prove sobriety. Cameras on the kiosks are monitored remotely to ensure the person pictured on the driver's license is the person buying the product.

Joy Bezak stopped briefly yesterday to look at the kiosk in the Giant Eagle in Fox Chapel. The machines are a good idea, the Mt. Washington resident said, although she hails from Ohio where wines are sold on supermarket shelves.

She'd use one "if I found the wine I like," Bezak said.

Jeffrey Barnett of Highland Park prefers wines be sold in state stores. "This doesn't belong in here," he said of the kiosk just inside the Giant Eagle's entrance.

Auditor General Jack Wagner announced a day after the kiosk shutdowns that his office would audit the performance of the devices. Ivan Anderson, a spokesman for Wagner, said yesterday the office doesn't discuss ongoing audits.

The Independent State Store Union, which represents 730 state store managers, has criticized the state's wine vending machine initiative.

Still, expect to see more kiosks. Lesser said his company has produced about 100 machines.

"We are doing the rollout slowly," Witalec said, "to ensure that the units that were operating previously and were worked on are working as we anticipated they would." The state Liquor Control Board hopes to have most of the additional machines in place by late March, she said.

All the board's contracts are with traditional grocery retailers right now, she said, and the agency is in discussions to put machines into some Super Wal-Marts, which have grocery sections.

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