In the past, tax-free weekends like the one the state is planning for this weekend have given merchants across the commonwealth something to smile about.
But this year, not all merchants are smiling. Liquor store owners, who stand to benefit from the two-day tax holiday for the first time since the state started applying the sales tax to liquor last July, say the weekend won't come close to making up for the 10 to 40 percent decline in sales they have endured in the past year.
Those owners are still smarting at the mass exodus of customers who decided to drive a few more miles up the highway to tax-free New Hampshire rather than fork over an additional 6.25 percent for beer, wine and liquor.
While they hope the tax-free holiday brings a few of those customers back to support local businesses for the weekend, they contend the only way to put their businesses back in the black is to repeal the tax.
When asked if he felt this weekend's tax-free event would be a boon for business, Todd Baltich of Leary's Fine Wine and Liquors in downtown Newburyport was nonplussed.
"I think what will be a boon for business is when in November people go to the ballot and repeal the state liquor tax law," said Baltich, who acknowledged a significant drop in business from the year-old law.
While he and others appreciate the sentiment of a weekend off from the bleeding, he and others are more focused on the bigger picture and getting that law repealed.
"Liquor is already taxed about 40 percent," Baltich said. "It's taxed at the wholesale level. If I buy a bottle of wine from a wholesaler, it's already taxed, and the state has gotten their money from the wholesaler. It's a tax on a tax — a sales tax on an excise tax."
At Route 110 Liquors in Amesbury, a message to customers and all who pass is not one celebrating this weekend's tax hiatus, but a call to action imploring the voting public to keep the 6.25 percent tax in mind at the ballot box in November.
It reads, "Remember the sales tax — vote them out of office."
The area's local legislators, state Sen. Steven Baddour and state Rep. Michael Costello, both voted to repeal the liquor tax in the latest budget.
But that's of little solace for Route 110 Liquors manager Phil Jones, who said a weekend of being on "almost" even footing with the border towns of New Hampshire won't come close to making up for what's been lost as a result of the tax.
Since the implementation of the liquor tax, New Hampshire has aggressively marketed the state's sales tax-free status at the border. Gov. John Lynch held a press conference yesterday to remind shoppers that New Hampshire is tax-free year-round, and at the state liquor store off Interstate 95 south in Seabrook, a large sign encourages passers-by to stock up tax-free as they head over the border.
New Hampshire officials estimate increased liquor sales of $15 million since the Mass. law went into effect. Aside from the sales tax differential, which has cost Route 110 Liquors a 25 percent drop in sales, New Hampshire has other ways to keep residents coming north, Jones said.
"In Massachusetts, you can't sell alcohol for less than you pay for it, and New Hampshire doesn't operate that way," Jones said. "(Seabrook Market Basket) will sell for the absolute rock bottom and hope you buy the hamburgers and hot dogs while you're there."
Baltich said New Hampshire sales increases of $15 million or more are even more powerful when you consider most of those increases have been logged at the liquor stores that are on the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
"When you hear figures about how much they've increased in sales in the state of New Hampshire, that's a statewide thing; but if you look at how stores next to the Massachusetts border have increased, they've increased their sales dramatically, and it could be as much as 40 percent," he said. "Stores that are on the Quebec border are not surging in sales."
Criticisms of the sales tax aside, Baltich and other liquor retailers are grateful for the opportunity to do a little extra business this weekend.
He received a call from a woman yesterday who happened to be throwing a wedding reception this weekend and had planned to purchase her wines from the New Hampshire State Liquor store strategically located right over the border on I-95. He told her about Massachusetts' one-weekend-only sales tax vacation, and she decided to come into Leary's instead.
That's just the kind of relief that Baddour and Costello would like to bring to border towns they represent on a full-time basis, they said yesterday.
"Retailers in border communities, such as Amesbury, Newburyport and Salisbury, struggle every day against New Hampshire businesses," Baddour said in a statement yesterday. "This gives them an equal playing field to attract shoppers and compete for business during their traditionally slowest sales period. I voted against increasing the sales tax to 6.25 percent and will continue the fight to lower it."
Costello echoed those sentiments.
"I continue to oppose the alcohol tax because it puts those retailers on an uneven playing field that did not exist previously," he said.