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This obscure rule explains why you can't return liquor in Michigan

shelves of liquor
The options at liquor stores are often overwhelming. And if you buy the wrong bottle in Michigan, you're stuck with it.

I briefly lived above a liquor store when I was an undergrad, and on my 21st birthday, it was my first stop.

Being newly-21, I was instantly overwhelmed by the choices that sat behind the counter. So when the owner asked me what I wanted, I panicked and just asked for “whatever’s cheapest” (the default answer of all college students).

He handed me a bottle of vodka, and after proudly showing him my ID, I paid and raced up to my apartment, thrilled with my first official alcohol purchase. But when I opened the paper bag, I realized the vodka he had sold me was...grape-flavored.

Knowing that cheap, grape-flavored vodka was not how I wanted to celebrate my birthday, I immediately turned around to ask for a refund, only to find that I wasn’t allowed to return alcohol in the state of Michigan!

That’s why, two years later, this MI Curious question by listener Sarvesh Agrawal piqued my attention:

“Why can't I return liquor to a store in state of Michigan? What is the reason behind it?”

It turns out that while many people have never needed to return liquor, I’m not the only one who has tried and failed to do so.

I asked Michigan Radio members to describe their experiences with trying to return alcohol:

"My wife went into a liquor store and inadvertently bought the wrong liquor. I was waiting in the car and immediately saw that it was not the correct stuff, so she went back inside to return/exchange it, but was denied." - Pete Kahn
"This is a silly story but...I wanted to buy a cabernet for a recipe. I bought merlot. I tried to swap them (at Meijer) and was surprised to learn that isn't allowed. My fault for not checking the labels close enough." - Jenn Wildey Palm
"I bought clear rum instead of spiced rum for eggnog. Realized my mistake in the parking lot. No dice on the return." - Eric Schmidt

The policy is hidden in Administrative Rule 436.1531 of the Michigan Department of Regulatory and Licensing Affairs, which states that unless an alcoholic product is somehow unfit for consumption, a retailer cannot refund liquor purchases.

So, for instance, if you buy a bottle of wine that turns out to be tainted, you can get your money back. But if you accidentally buy grape-flavored vodka, you’re out of luck.

That didn’t make sense to me, since Michigan allows customers to return other food and beverage products. Why would liquor be any different?

Plus, a lot other states don’t have this rule. A lot of them, like New York or California, leave it up to the retailer whether they will refund liquor products.

After some digging, I found a suggestion from a 2012 forum that this rule exists because a customer is not licensed to sell alcohol, and getting a refund is considered selling alcohol back to the retailer.

I emailed David Harns, LARA’s Public Information Officer, to determine whether that was true.

“By law,” Harns replied, “licensees may not allow any alcoholic beverages to be sold or consumed on their premises that were not obtained from a legally-approved source. Accepting a return from a customer would violate this section but there are exceptions which permit a retail licensee to accept a return of a damaged or contaminated product.”

In other words, you can't return alcohol because individual customers aren’t licensed to sell alcohol, and a refund is technically a sales transaction.

As to whether this rule was made intentionally or is just an odd fluke, Harns says he can’t speculate.

The moral of the story? Double check the labels on liquor before you buy it. And if you accidentally buy grape-flavored vodka, gift it to a naive, strapped-for-cash 21-year-old.

Trust me, they'll drink it eventually.

Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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