Tuesday, March 30, 2004

critical consumer mass

Living in a small state has its advantages and its disadvantages. One of the shortcomings is that we don't always have the variety of consumer choices that someone living in a large city such as New York or Philadelphia might have.

True, those cities are between an hour to three hours away from most folks who live in Delaware. Baltimore and the District of Columbia aren't too far south either. But, I'm talking about stores in Delaware itself. The local grocery, or even the local package store.

The World Wide Web is enabling us to purchase things that we might otherwise not be able to find. A friend recently suggested a CD by a local band. Local to him, in New Zealand. I couldn't find it at any of the five Delaware music stores I visited, but it took me five minutes to order it online, and two weeks to have it delivered.

One very strong concern in the State is the sale of alcoholic beverages directly to consumers on the web. There's a legitimate fear that minors might purchase those, and circumvent an age verification system such as the showing of a drivers license when buying at a local liquor store. So, do we ban that type of sale competely, or do we find a way to make direct sales to consumers work? The Wilmington News Journal address the issue in an article entitled Delaware decries move to loosen liquor sales.

The article seems to slant towards favoring the "three tier system" that sees alcoholic beverages relying upon the movement of a beverage from manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer, and then to consumer. But, no one seems to be asking how to make direct sales to consumers work. As a consumer living in Delaware, I know how difficult it can be to gain the same freedom of choice in a store as I do on the web. We should be looking for more creative solutions.

One solution that we can't use is credit cards as an age verification system. Teenagers can vote, drive, get drafted, get married, and exercise many other responsibilities under our laws and constitution, but they can't drink until they are twenty-one. One other thing they can do is get a credit card. One of the more frightening quotes in the article didn't have anything to do with underage drinking.
In one test conducted by wholesalers, a 15-year-old with his own credit card reportedly ordered and received tequila, according to the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.
What is a fifteen-year-old doing with a credit card?

This issue is about alcohol, but it's also likely about the regulation of any goods across geographic borders. The web opens many opportunities to us. We have a responsibility to think about them wisely.