Methods: Across five cities in the East Bay area of California we conducted qualitative interviews with managers at 40 off-premise alcohol sales stores, stratified by store and neighborhood conditions. We queried the qualitative data for decision-making processes about alcohol sales. We compared these results with quantitative assessments of store characteristics from all 403 off-premise outlets in these cities, noting store operating conditions, products, and license types. For the quantitative assessment, we used principle component analyses to assess the degree to which the 403 stores could be characterized by groupings of the 52 assessed store characteristics.
Results: Our qualitative results indicated that managers in independently-owned stores made decisions about what to sell based on direct requests from neighborhood-based customers. Managers selected niche markets to cultivate or avoid in choosing products, and noted the need to address niches not occupied by large and chain stores, which can offer low-cost alcoholic beverage purchases. In chain and franchise operations product decisions were made by off-site corporate managers. Distributors suggested and offered products to independent and corporate managers. The first two PCA identified dimensions accounting for 27.9% of all variance in the 52 store characteristics. Higher scores on PCA 1 were associated with independent corner stores, linked to selling blunts (Little Cigars/Cigarillos used to smoke cannabis), malt beverages, cigarettes, and mini-bottles of spirits; and associated with lower-income and non-White areas. Higher scores on PCA 2 were associated with chain-type grocery stores, selling produce and snacks as well as mixed spirits; and associated with non-White areas.
Conclusions: Off-premise alcohol sales outlets operate in a complex socio-economic system of interdependencies. Stores in low-income non-White neighborhoods tend to be independently operated, but the ability of chain stores to undercut alcohol product prices may encourage independent stores to market tobacco and cannabis products. “Corner store” interventions should account for these environmental contexts.