Red, white, or rosy rip-off?

If you live in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you’ve likely had occasion to rue the state-owned liquor control system. In other words, you ain’t buying a bottle anywhere but an overpriced, state-owned “Wine & Spirits Shoppe” (how quaint — a “shoppe”). Or, you can buy a CASE of beer at a beer distributor. If you want a six-pack, you have to find a bar (and pay the higher price). Oh, and you can buy wine at a PA winery, but not have it shipped from an out-of-state winery.

Imagine how exciting it is to hear this news reported online by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Makeover coming for state-owned liquor stores

By The Associated Press
Friday, August 29, 2008

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s 621 state-run liquor stores are getting a new look and better customer service.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is spending about $3 million over two years on an outside consultant to help revamp the liquor stores beginning next year.

Merchandise will be reorganized to make it easier to find, employees will be trained in the art of wine selection, and a new name and logo are in the works. Most of them now are called Wine & Spirits Stores or Wine & Spirits Shoppes.

The agency also will encourage customers to sample new wines and spirits to help determine which ones pair well with certain foods.

“This all started because we asked our customers what they liked and what they didn’t like,” board chairman Patrick J. Stapleton III said in Friday’s editions of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Shoppers gave the stores mixed reviews in a survey the board conducted last year, Stapleton said. Customers said some stores were attractive and featured a good wine assortment, but others were small, cramped and had clerks who didn’t know much about the merchandise or weren’t very helpful.

Customers spent only eight minutes shopping on average, and urban and suburban customers were the most dissatisfied with their experiences, Stapleton said.

The agency expects to start making changes in some stores in the first half of next year, Stapleton said. It is seeking advice from Landor Associates, a San Francisco-based branding services consultant.

Jonathan Newman, the board’s former chairman, said the agency also needs to improve pricing. Customers pay a 30 percent retail markup, a 6 percent sales tax and an 18 percent “emergency” tax. Newman resigned from the board last year and founded a private company that supplies out-of-state wine retailers with discounted wines.

“More cosmetic changes, like changing signs and names, are creative but don’t address that more fundamental problem of competitive pricing,” Newman said.

Ronnie Rodgers, 68, of Media, said his shopping experience improved after the agency recently renovated his local store.

“It is just not like the state stores when I grew up,” he said. “They are very well run, well prepared.”

But Sharon DeJoseph of West Conshohocken said a makeover wouldn’t make much of a difference to her as she stood outside a small liquor store in Bridgeport.

“I run in, get a bottle, and run out,” DeJoseph said. “It’s not like I hang out here.”

How are consumers and PA taxpayers supposed to respond to this ridiculousness? Spending $3 million and hiring a consultant? I don’t need “advice” on what wine to buy — I need wine I can afford to buy. And I need to be able to buy wine and beer more easily — like at the supermarket. Like the responsible adult I am.

“Customers pay a 30 percent retail markup, a 6 percent sales tax and an 18 percent ’emergency’ tax.”

No wonder the state isn’t going to put the issue to a referendum any time soon. What a cash cow. And the PLCB has the gall to boast that it’s leveraging its buying power as the country’s largest purchaser of wine to offer deep discounts. Would that be before the ginormous markup and taxes?

“…urban and suburban customers were the most dissatisfied with their experiences…”

So that’s the secret — I need to move to rural PA to be more satisfied with the system. (Or is it just that country folk are into home-based production?)

No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size.
Government programs, once launched, never disappear.
Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing
to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.
                                                   ~ Ronald Reagan

Comcast Rip-off

 Special Note 2: Happy surprise — when I received my latest bill, it seems I was credited for the entire $51 ($50.96) I was owed. So, in the end, Comcast did the right thing and made good on its error. So I give them kudos for that. I just wish it hadn’t been so difficult to get them to do the right thing.  

Special Note: I was just about to post this when I received a call from a third person at Comcast (Victoria) telling me they are refunding me $33 (11 months of the extra $3 charge). I don’t understand how they arrived at this amount, since I’ve been paying the extra for 19 months, but I guess I’m happier because it’s more than the $18 I was getting back originally. But still, it’s not quite there, is it. So read on, and learn from my mistake.

I’m sad to have to blog about something as mundane as getting ripped off by the cable company (it’s so cliché). But hey, venting is good for the blood pressure, if not actually for the soul.

In yesterday’s bill, I found an extra sheet outlining the current costs for various services and the new costs because, of course, Comcast is raising rates yet again (who can keep track of how often this happens?). Seems I should be paying $42.95 for my high-speed Internet service, but for some reason, my bill lists $45.95. Nothing itemized — just a flat $45.95.

So I call customer service, and they quickly discern that I am being charged a $3 modem rental fee every month. (This $3 fee is listed on the rate sheet in a separate column with many other “High-Speed Internet Installation & Other Services.”) Funny thing, I have never rented a modem from Comcast, I’ve owned my own modem for oh, 8 or 9 years or so, I was not charged this fee by Comcast at my last house, but suddenly it appeared on my bill and has been there for the last year and a half. I didn’t notice it sooner because I had a special “deal” with digital cable for the first 6 months we lived here. When that ended, the $33.95/month I was paying jumped to $45.95. Again, no itemization that the basic charge was $42.95 plus a $3 tack-on for the mystery modem — an extra I would have noticed and called about immediately.

So, here I am, expecting a full credit for 19 months of their mistake and am told by a lovely customer service rep that Comcast is only required to go back 6 months for a refund. I was told the same thing by the supervisor I insisted on speaking with, who actually had the audacity to try to upsell me to get Comcast phone service as well! Good job, Yolanda, I’m sure your bosses are proud of you. I, however, am thinking DSL sounds pretty damn good right now.

I suggested (a bit heatedly) to Yolanda that Comcast itemize these charges so people know what they’re being charged for. She assured me they’d take my suggestion under consideration. (I’m sure she’s tapping out an e-mail to her powers-that-be about that very thing right now — because that’s what people do, right? They listen to their customers, they try to solve problems, they believe the customer is always right? HA HA HA)

Hey, I get it. Having to actually tell customers what you’re charging them for would defeat the whole profit in being able to easily rip them off.

I’m not an ignorant person, I’m pretty vigilant about checking bills and so forth, but somehow I missed this the last time the rate cards came out. So, my $36 loss is Comcast’s $36 gain. Caveat emptor for sure.

Have you checked your cable bill lately? (I hear FIOS is pretty awesome…)

You can fool all the people all the time if
the advertising is right and the budget is big enough. 
                                         ~ Joseph E. Levine