Cook County retailers report beverage sales decline

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As the owner of three Food Market La Chiquita stores in Cook County, Martin Sandoval has watched his usual number of sales dip over the last two weeks, a result of the county’s beverage tax.

“It’s just beginning,” Sandoval said. “People don’t realize how much the tax costs them until they get home and they look at the receipt. Then they decide not to come back, and I know that’s just going to increase.”

Sandoval said his beverage sales have dropped 10 to 15 percent since the county’s sweetened beverage tax, which takes aim at sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks, went into effect on Aug. 2.

His chain of stores isn’t the only one seeing their sales go down the drain.

Sandoval, Tony’s Finer Foods and Lupe Jimenez own 21 stores in the county between them. As part of the Illinois Food Retailers Association, the three retailers provided data on their sales to the Can the Tax Coalition. The coalition receives funding from the American Beverage Association.

David Goldenberg, a spokesperson for Can the Tax, said the declining sales were predicted by residents and retailers long before the tax went into effect and “no one is surprised” by the numbers.

“We’ve heard from people all over the county that it’s not only beverage sales that are declining, but all sales,” Goldenberg said. “The impact of that is multifold — residents are choosing not to shop here and Cook County is losing revenue from this tax, sales tax and other excise taxes.”

Vince Gambino, vice president of sales and marketing for Tony’s Finer Foods, said that at their Prospect Heights location they’ve seen a sales decline of 39 percent. That store is less than 10 miles away from a Mariano’s in Lake County.

A comparison of sales for the week the tax went into effect to the same week in 2016 shows a decline of about 29 percent for the grocer’s 13 Cook County stores.

In neighboring Will County, the Plainfield location of Tony’s has seen an increase of about 16 percent.

“We don’t have a course of action to deal with this,” Gambino said. “We’ve been trying to promote non-sweetened items, but we’re still seeing a decline and it’s putting us at a huge disadvantage.”

The figure comes on the heels of five Illinois House Republicans introducing legislation on Aug. 15 to repeal the beverage tax, which they say has hit not only the pocketbooks of businesses, but residents too. A day later, House Democrats introduced similar legislation to block the beverage tax.

Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said it’s “far too early to draw any long-lasting conclusions.”

Citing a study done after Berkeley, California, implemented their beverage tax, Shuftan said “over time, consumers switched their beverage purchasing to water and options other than sweetened beverages, and total grocery bills did not decline. People just changed their consumption habits.”

Sandoval said that if the trend continues, he and other grocery chains may see a domino effect occur. Fewer customers means less money, which means fewer employees and fewer sweetened beverages.

“It’s like a household, you have to look at ways to make money stretch,” he said. “Business is no different. This isn’t a crisis yet, but you can tell it’s hurting residents and businesses.”

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