Brendon Cull is the senior director of government relations at Kroger Co.
When Governor Bill Haslam signed the “Wine in the Grocery Stores” bill in Tennessee last month, it was the culmination of a nearly seven-year-long process and marks the first time in decades that a state has passed legislation to open up wine sales to grocery stores.
Dedicated legislative sponsors and hundreds of passionate wine advocates helped bring about this historic event in the grocery industry. Tennessee offers important lessons for how retailers can change the restrictive laws in the other 13 states where customers are clamoring for the convenience of being able to buy wine with their food. Here are seven lessons learned during the seven-year quest to bring wine to grocery stores:
1. Create a strong coalition.
The success in Tennessee belongs to a strong, well-funded, and united coalition named “Red, White and Food” that was led by Jarron Springer, the talented former president of the Tennessee Grocery and Convenience Store Association. Food City, Publix, Kroger and several independent retailers all played leadership roles in the coalition. The Tennessee Retail Association also was a key partner. Understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the coalition met regularly and presented a united front to legislators and the public. The associations continued to do their “day jobs,” and the Red, White and Food group kept its focus on wine.
2. Find dedicated sponsors.
This bill would never have been passed if not for legislative leaders like Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Jon Lundberg. They were committed to the cause and never faltered, even after several defeats. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and Speaker Beth Harwell were tremendous advocates, and their support “sealed the deal.” Both personally intervened to move the bill forward at critical times. Having sponsors and leaders in both chambers who are equally committed to the cause is crucial to any effort to reform alcohol laws. In addition, retailers built relationships with every legislator, no matter their initial stance. Some legislators told us early on they would never support our proposal, but once a compromise emerged, many of them voted yes. Importantly, victory requires building relationships that go beyond this one issue. Showing up only when you need a vote is like bringing wine to a party but keeping it all to yourself. Finally, we thanked legislators often. After each vote, retailers hung signs in stores thanking specific sponsors who helped us achieve a new milestone.
3. Hire the best talent.
Professional talent is important. We sought out lobbyists with reputations for getting things done and for representing diverse coalitions. They were joined by public relations firms that crafted messages that resonated with legislators, the public and media. Professionals gave advice about how our agenda fit into the bigger political and policy picture at the capitol. They had long and trusted relationships with influential legislators. The best ones, like ours in Tennessee, will become experts in the industry and will fiercely advocate for you with legislators and the media.
4. Your customers are your best advocates.
Survey after survey shows that customers believe wine belongs in the grocery store. Moms, especially, believe this is a matter of convenience and fairness. And they are willing to speak out. Kroger hired a grassroots specialist to engage our customers through in-store events, press conferences, house parties, and social media. We put “Red, White and Food” signs in every Kroger store in Tennessee. More than 30,000 customers from many retailers signed up on the Red, White and Food website and some testified before the legislature. Legislators wanted to hear from their constituents, and the media wanted to talk to everyday Tennesseans who supported the cause. We learned that customers were grateful to us for advocating on their behalf, and they embraced the opportunity to join in the advocacy.
5. Your employees can help.
Retailers held annual “Day on the Hill” events where hundreds of associates visited legislators to talk about the economic impact in their district and the reasons customers want wine in the grocery store. Aside from the obvious benefit to the cause, our employees found these “Day on the Hill” events to be great leadership development activities. Store managers invited legislators on store tours and to our team meetings. Employees wrote letters, talked to customers and connected personally with legislators at town halls. It’s important to remind legislators that retailers are job creators and that our employees are just as engaged as the employees of our opponents.
6. Keep your eyes on the big picture.
The final bill in Tennessee isn’t perfect. But it puts retailers on the path to selling wine in grocery stores, which is our ultimate goal. Instead of just passing wine in the grocery store legislation outright, we endorsed a compromise: the legislature would give Tennesseans the right to vote on the issue. This ultimately helped open the floodgates. When our opponents came to the table to negotiate in the final months, we had to give up more than we liked. But in the end, compromise was the final step toward victory. One of our lobbyists reminded us often: “Keep your eye on the prize!” He was right.
7. Don’t give up — ever.
For six consecutive years, we lost. And then we won. Each year, we declared we would be back again. Once legislators — and our opponents — realized that we were going to be a permanent force at the capitol, our issue took on a sense of urgency and importance. When our bill failed in year six, we immediately dispatched our team to engage customers in the districts of legislators that didn’t support us. It was a clear signal we weren’t going to quit. Traditional opponents in this debate rely on grocers and retailers getting frustrated and giving up. It was critical to the ultimate success that the coalition stayed together and did not quit until we won.
The history-making effort in Tennessee was the result of years of hard work by dedicated legislators, customers, grocers, retailers and industry-supporters. Each state’s legislature and climate is surely different, but we believe these broad principles can be applied anywhere as you take up the charge to modernize alcohol laws on behalf of your customers.
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