The Investigators: Self-serve store sells beer to underage buyer

By Andy Wise - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

This time, SmartMart wasn't so smart.

Deputies with the Shelby County Metro DUI Squad cited the fully-automated, touch-screen, do-it-yourself convenient store at the corner of Park Avenue and White Station in East Memphis for selling beer to an underage, undercover buyer.

The buyer, a 20-year-old female, bought a 24-ounce can of beer using her real driver's license.  It indicates her birth date is 1989.

"I thought it said '87," says Ryan Day, SmartMart's software engineer who ran the video surveillance on the underage sale.  "I thought she looked pretty young, and (deputies) pulled the video, and I'm like '89.'  Good job."

Deputies cited Day with a misdemeanor.

Memphis entrepreneur Mike Rivalto conceived SmartMart in the late '80's and opened the East Memphis location as the prototype in 2003.

Instead of clerks or cashiers, SmartMart has computer screens where customers drive up and punch the items they want to purchase.  Once a purchase is approved, a robotic system fetches the merchandise from inventory sealed inside the building, then delivers it in a drawer to the customer's car window.

When alcohol is purchased, a SmartMart employee is supposed to check the customer's identification via surveillance camera.  The customer puts his or her drivers license in a slot where the employee can read the license and determine whether to complete the sale.

Metro DUI Squad Sgt. Michael Pope says this is the first time SmartMart's been cited for an underage beer sale in one of the squad's beer stings.

"We've tried on several occasions, I think, in about 6 years," says Pope.  "This is the first time we got them."

"One time is one time too many," says Dell Russell, victim advocate for Shelby County Mothers Against Drunk-Driving.  She says SmartMart's concept of checking ID's by surveillance camera is flawed.

"It's much better to be able to take the license, hold it in your hand and look at it," Russell says.  "You can visually see it better. I mean, the numbers could have been distorted. Anything could have happened."

Rivalto did not return an e-mail requesting an interview.  When reached on his cell phone, he said, "If I wanted to talk to you, I would have contacted you," and he abruptly ended the call.

"I definitely should have caught it," says Day, whose court date is set for July 7.  "I mean, the hardware and software's there to help someone like me catch it, and I just blew it."

SmartMart's management will also have to go before the city's beer board for a hearing on the violation.

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