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    Montana Food Distributors Focused on Small Stores

    State's smaller retailers face a challenge from big box stores, while a new focus is placed on the training of alcohol servers.

    NEW YORK -- Grocery store sales in Montana are booming, partly due to a 50-percent decline in the restaurant business, but small stores are seeing market share slip as shoppers flock to big box retailers such as Walmart and Costco.

    "The highs and lows of the economy take around two years before they reach us here in Montana," said McKee Anderson, executive director of the Montana Food Distribution Association (MFDA). "And now that we're beginning to feel the effects of the recession, it's presenting us with an unexpected challenge."

    As a result, the association is focusing on helping retailers and distributors reclaim or increase their market shares. "We're encouraging a look at acquisitions as a possible strategy," said Anderson. "If we can achieve greater scale in our operations we'll be able to cut costs and keep big box retailers from enlarging their positions though lower pricing."

    Anderson and the MFDA are pursuing the matter as distributors and retailers mull their proposals.

    In the meantime, an issue involving employee training in the sale and servicing of alcohol beverages is drawing attention throughout the state.

    It stems from a case involving a driver who was served several drinks, after which he ran into and killed a Highway Patrol officer. The officer's wife is attempting to have the server and server's employer charged with manslaughter and negligent homicide, which can draw anywhere from a fine to a prison term of life. The action is currently in the hands of the State Attorney General.

    While the state works through this difficult matter, an alliance of industry groups called the Coalition to Promote Responsible Alcohol Service is offering alcohol servers and retailers programs on how to sell and serve alcoholic beverages in a safe and responsible manner.

    Speaking for the seven state associations in the coalition, Anderson said: "employee training works. But it should not be ignored that, according to a 2008 government survey, 69 percent of minors aged 12 to 20 who obtain alcohol get it from their homes, friends and families. Enforce the law." He added: "But it's important to keep a balanced approach to the problem. We're trying to do our share by training our servers.

    "If this action is successful," he noted, "it will place a business owner at the mercy of his worst employee, no matter how responsible the business owner is and no matter what steps he's taken to train and buy equipment, etc. to assure compliance with the law."

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