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A 366-day marathon that has felt longer will end with hope blanketed in mystery. At least that’s true for the people who sell alcohol.

Yes, bottles will pop tonight. Anticipation and hope will make the air of a new year seem extra fresh, even if it’s inhaled through a mask.

Yet, the number of corks that will go flying is a mystery. Likewise, for how many bottles of wine are poured dry, cases of beer are emptied and every other type of spirit that’s drained to the bottom. And what it all ultimately means for an otherwise sturdy industry won’t be quantified until the calendar has flipped to 2021.

“We have no idea, honestly,” said Andrew Bess, assistant manager at the Liquor Company in Charleston. “It’s one of those things where we have to play it as we see it. We just don’t know if people are going to have get-togethers or not.”

Still, businesses that sell alcohol have to prepare, doing so while hoping for the best and bracing for the worst. Because people will indeed gather, either in their homes or in public. Yet, the foreseeable size of the congregations is as gray as a late-December sky, regardless of mandates, restrictions and other protocols.

That’s left many retailers struggling to forecast how much and what to stock on shelves.

Ideally for them, an abundance of folks will watch the ball drop in Times Square from their living rooms while indulging at home with locally purchased products. The optimism for this scenario is powered by this: off-premise alcohol sales have managed to remain on par — or have bettered 2019 totals — throughout much of this year.

According to Nielsen, a global research marketing firm, national off-premise sales has been especially strong in the past few months. Nielsen reports a 17.6% spike in September and October from the same period in 2019, including a 26.3% jump in spirits. Wine sales increased by 18.9%, while beer purchases increased 8.7%.

Those numbers jibe with some local reports.

Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger Mid-Atlantic, said beer sales are up more than 10% in Kroger’s Charleston-area stores. Wine sales also are up 5% from the same time last year.

More than 2,200 locations statewide have off-premise licenses, said Gig Robinson of the Alcohol Beverage Control Administration. The effects of COVID-19 on alcohol sales in West Virginia won’t be known until summer, the next licensing period.

Some area retailers said they can, at least momentarily, exhale.

“I feel very fortunate. We’ve had a good year and a very strong holiday season,” said Ted Armbrecht, managing partner of the Wine Shop at Capitol Market. “In spite of all the pandemic stuff, sales have continued to be pretty strong.

“The year, in general, has trended very well. I will say I always worry, because the fourth quarter is so important to us. I was concerned coming into this year that it might be a struggle, because we do a lot of wine tastings and events and parties from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and it has an impact on our bottom line. Knowing we weren’t going to have those this year was some concern, but we didn’t miss a beat. Even without those sales, business was strong.”

How the biggest party night of the year might affect sales amid the coronavirus pandemic is unknown. So, too, is how many people will fall into one of five categories of customers in what Nielsen calls the “New Normal.” Greg Doonan of Nielsen outlines those groups as:

  • Constrained and restricted: Customers who’ve been significantly affected financially by the pandemic and are physically unable to shop for the best deals or congregate with others because of local restrictions.
  • Constrained but free: People who’ve been negatively affected financially, yet can price shop and gather with others.
  • Cautions missile: Those who haven’t been affected by the pandemic either financially or physically but are otherwise still cautious spenders.
  • Insulated but restricted: People who haven’t been hindered financially, yet have their normal spending and celebration habits restricted. Nielsen said this group has the financial flexibility to indulge in other ways (such as elaborate at-home gatherings) to make up for being unable to travel.
  • Insulated and free: This group is uninhibited financially and without physical restrictions. This sect is more likely to exhibit pre-COVID-19 holiday behavior while also being more inclined to help people who are less fortunate.

Nielsen offers a disclaimer: “As plans change on a daily basis related to COVID-19 developments, it will be imperative that companies align their plans with the new circumstances consumers find themselves in.”

In other words: Under the unique conditions of a major holiday celebrated during a pandemic, it’s more of hoping for the best, bracing for the worst.

“We ordered extra stock, but we didn’t go crazy,” Bess said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”