Allowing booze sales in convenience stores is a dumb idea

Convenient Beer

Clearly, I’m among those who feel that the province’s beverage alcohol retail system needs modernizing.

I think most would agree I’ve been pretty vocal on that subject in the past.

You’d think then, that I’d be on board with recent initiatives from the Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA) to lobby the province to let them sell booze.

Well I’m definitely not. Booze in convenience stores is a dumb idea.

In fact, allowing convenience stores to sell alcohol will simply give us more of the same shitty system we already have, just in more locations. And more of the same isn’t better, it’s worse.

Don’t get me wrong. There are valid points among the OCSA’s pitch. First, there’s the social responsibility angle. I agree with the province that the current system does much to ensure public safety, but convenience stores have in fact shown that they ID customers for lotto and smokes more routinely than The Beer Store and LCBO ID for booze. Convenience stores have much more to lose if they fuck up their ability to sell those profitable items so you can bet they’re careful about playing by the rules. You’ll get no argument there from me that the convenience stores could sell alcohol responsibly. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to let them.

I also agree with the OSCA’s “merchandise” argument. They argue that, by allowing The Beer Store to sell items like lighters, barbeque accessories, and patio furniture, the government is allowing The Beer Store to infringe on convenience store jurisdiction and thus further expand their monopoly.

I agree. In fact, I think The Beer Store is a shady enterprise from top to bottom and if the OCSA shows me a petition to demand that Molson-Coors, AB InBev, and Sapporo close down all Beer Stores tomorrow, I’ll be the first fucker to sign it. But that doesn’t mean I agree with selling booze in convenience stores.

And here’s why: allowing convenience stores to sell alcohol does absolutely nothing to improve the current retail system for craft breweries and distilleries.

Sure, OSCA CEO David Bryans has said they’ll dedicate 30 per cent of their beverage shelf space to Ontario wines and craft beers, but even if they keep that promise, is that really going to improve the current system?

The current system needs revamping because it allows the biggest brewers and the biggest distillers and the biggest distributors of liquor to call all the shots because they’ve got vast sums of money with which to lobby the government.

The current system needs revamping because there is a disproportionate amount of big companies taking up shelf space in the stores that currently sell alcohol.

Does anyone really believe for a second that opening retail alcohol sales to private companies (who are literally only motivated by profit) will change that?

Does anyone truly think that Labatt’s, Molson, Jim Beam, and Diageo won’t find a way to throw their financial weight around and then simply dominate a new market?

The suggestion that they’d sell 30% Ontario products is novel, but when you think of the 7-Eleven, Rabba, Mac’s, Petro-Canada, Imperial Oil, and Canadian Tire (the companies comprising the OSCA), do you picture local, artisinal, and craft products lining their shelves? Probably not. In fact, you probably picture junk food, big brand names, and cheaply made items that maximize profits. And if you think they’ll take a different approach when it comes to beer, then you’re fucking kidding yourself. Even if they stick to the “30% Ontario” promise, there are plenty of shitty boozemakers technically brewing and distilling right here in Ontario whom I’d sure would be happy to to pay for the right tell sell their products at more stores.

Should convenience stores be allowed to sell alcohol, it’s really not that hard to imagine press releases like “Mac’s Announces Exciting Partnership with Steelback” or “Chill Out This Summer with The New Exclusive Polar Ice Slurpee.” The main issue those who care about fairness in alcohol sales should be concerned about is the continued ability for big companies to buy their way into markets–beit the stores they own outright, the bar taps they get with payoffs, or, in this case, the inevitability that a private company will look after its bottom line.

As long as there is a way for those with the most money to establish a monopoly, they will establish a monopoly. The OSCA solution looks good on paper, but it’s not the answer. Convenient shit is still shit.

16 thoughts on “Allowing booze sales in convenience stores is a dumb idea

  1. I take your point that small producers won’t be able to capture any more market through convenience stores. However, that’s not really an argument against letting them sell beer and wine. I mean, it’s a convenience store – it doesn’t carry “any” niche products, so it won’t carry niche beer. We don’t say, “they shouldn’t be able to sell bread because they won’t carry gluten free bread”. We don’t expect that from the business model, which is generic, slightly over priced, and serves the needs of ppl who sometimes want to get something quickly or at weird hours. Same with beer: no, it won’t be your favorite craft beer, but it will be a place to go when for a six pack when you don’t want to take 1 hour out of your day during cross your local lcbo/beer store urban desert, or if you some how arrive after 5:00 on a Sunday. In short: it’s about using the convenience store model (generic, slightly overpriced, good hours/location) to give consumers more choice. Lets remember, LCBOs and beerstores are, at least in my town, badly located, few and far between compared to demand, and idiotic in their hours of operation. It won’t solve that particular problem you mention, but it solves other problems.

    1. But if we’re working on solutions, why just solve the “convenience” problem? People should have better choices than what they have now (as in variety of beer, not just places to buy it). I fear allowing sales in convenience stores will just mean more places to buy the same old shit–or worse. I’m saying if we want to modernize alcohol sales, let’s get away from the system that favours big, multi-national, billion dollar companies entirely.

  2. I’m getting a lot of feedback on twitter right now that’s all touting the convenience store models that are working fine in Quebec, Alberta, the US, etc. but in a province where the big brewers’ business is so ingrained, it seems highly unlikely to me that the better beers will simply rise to the top or that the market will demand craft beer–nor will the big guys go quietly. I think it’s far more likely that the macrobrewers will flex their muscles and strike a deal with the convenience stores association. Or worse, we’ll see new ultra-cheap breweries popping up to foot that ominous 30%.

    Consider this: In the United States, where alcohol sales are permitted in convenience stores, 7-Elevens are actually the third-largest beer retailer in the country. Surely that’s something that the OSCA aspires to here in Ontario, so it’s probably not irrelevant to consider the way that convenience stores sell beer and liquor in the US.

    Do you think they’re mostly selling craft beer? Nope. They’re generally selling large amounts of cheaply made adjunct lagers like Keystone and Natural Light. In fact, after recognizing how much money there is to be made selling beer, 7-Eleven even started their own in-house beer brand, Game Day Ice (and Game Day Light) and you can probably guess what that shit tastes like.

    Obviously, there will be differences in the US and Ontario sales models, and I get that this option COULD mean convenience stores that act as “specialty” stores, but overall, this seems like a bad idea and a backward step for the province’s alcohol industry.

    1. Your 7-Eleven examples may be true, but I can also get stuff like Sierra Nevada, Stone, Avery and Chimay there.

    2. I don’t think anyone is saying that the big guys won’t be flexing their muscles, but it seems a bit defeatist in thinking that the smaller breweries will fail right out of the gates, especially since there IS a demand through this stuff within bars at least.

      And I believe that the US-Quebec comparisons are pretty apt since, yeah, most given stores and grocery stores you’re most likely to find Bud Light Lime Mojito or some such nonsense instead of something by a smaller brewery. But it also brought forth a rise to specialty beer store chains and allowed stores to think about the demand the locality has for their individual location. I think a downtown Longo’s with a client base more geared towards craft beer will be more likely to carry craft beer instead of my crappy little store in the middle of Scarborough where people consider a 24 of Molson the start of a high-society evening.

      While I think an all-out free for all is a bad idea at this time, I WOULD like to at least see more communication between the LCBO and OSCA and an initiative to perhaps allow certain benefits to stores who use that 30% space (and yes, I think communication with the LCBO would be imperative for that so we can prevent ultra-cheap breweries stepping in). And I think that interaction should be part of the deal to be reviewed at a later time.

      Loathe as I am to say that the LCBO should have a bigger piece of the pie, it’s the only way I can think of right now that will allow the smaller breweries a fair shot at smaller stores. I’m all for coming back to the idea for a free for all at a later time though, and seeing if things would be better then.

    3. To echo a point made below, just my reading of consumer tastes, but craft beer probably won’t ever capture nearly as much of the market as you might like because people generally like shitty cheap beer, name brands etc… at best, it’s going to serve the demands of certain niches. That being said, small producers definitely deserve to be on a level playing field and that is clearly not the case presently. If convenience stores can purchase beer that they think will sell (including the occasional craft beer), then this proposed measure might actually move things in the right direction?

  3. If the goal is to get them to sell better beer, it’s never going to happen, even if the big companies didn’t try to take control. And you know why? Because the majority of people drink cheap average beer. And that’s what your corner store 7-11 is going to sell, because it sells.

    If the licencing is still going to go through the LCBO, it won’t make a lick of difference either. Because getting greater small breweries to ship to Ontario is still a huge struggle, as anyone who has tried to place larrge private orders through the LCBO has found. Sierra Nevada, Bell’s, even western Canadian breweries just don’t want to do it; it’s too hard.

    But if the stores could import directly, figuring out their own systems (while giving a cut of the whole total to the LCBO, keeping them happy) then down the road in the corner of the city, someone is going to open a Beer mecca. A store devoted to all those beer you currently can arrange to get anywhere else. And those of us who love those beers are going to be such devotees that other places will blossom and spread. That’s the only way “good” beer is going to make any headway here.

    1. Yes to the Beer Mecca.

      And I agree. It’s already shown that we would line up two hours before opening for a 6-pack. If the same applies to independent Beer Mecca stores, places like that will spread.

      1. Not to be entirely centrist here, but I agree both that (a) liquor and beer sales in convenience stores would be good and (b) it’s not the solution to getting better beer sold more widely. I think a two-pronged approach is necessary: open the market to both traditional convenience stores (Mac’s, 7/11 etc) and beer-focused independent retailers. If I’m willing to travel to a brewery to pick up certain beers not available in the LCBO, I’m certainly going to be willing to travel to a Beer Mecca, as mentioned above, and I’m sure others would too. And if my non-beer-snob buddies want a sixer of Bud at 11pm on a Friday, then they’re taken care of too. Maybe convenience stores are simply the first step towards freeing up the beer market in Ontario?

  4. The Ontario Convenience Stores Association is a lobby effort, not a central purchaser. They don’t decide what stores put on their shelves.

    Bars don’t have quotas, yet on-premise sales are the biggest segment of Ontario craft beer sales. The explosion of craft beer availability in recent years is proof that if the public asks for it, the private sector will make it available… if given the chance.

  5. I would just like to point out the prices used on that chart for a home consumer on the first 4 brands are a sale price. Reg price is about $38.

    Remember TBS builds those orders and delivers them..this doesnt happen for a home consumer.

    If all licencees are charged the same, how does a bottle of domestic vary from $3- $11.50/bottle?

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