Last night I asked a question on our Facebook page that elicited an interesting reaction.
“Would private retailers (convenience and grocery stores) hurt small breweries like us? Would it help? What do you think?”
This question was in response to an article written by Dave Bryans, the CEO of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association, arguing for the deregulation of alcohol sales in Ontario. Bryans cited some interesting statistics regarding the rate in which LCBO, Beer Store and private retailers ID under age customers, arguing compellingly that we are able to responsibly distribute booze – no matter what the format.
The deregulation of alcohol sales would certainly help mom and pop shops, small business and subsistence convenience stores across Ontario. With the rise of Wall-everything, the gutting of tobacco sales and a price war on essential goods, this industry is hurting. The ability to sell liquor, beer and wine would likely be greeted with fanfare by these entrepreneurs seeking relevance.
Fanfare would be an accurate way to describe the reaction from consumers, too, if corner store sales became a reality. Imagine walking just a few minutes down the road to pick up a bag of chips, a scratch card and a few tall boys? All of life’s vices under one roof! While an inflated minimum price would likely persist, there would probably be more variation as competition once again becomes a factor. Competition is generally good for consumers, right? Lower prices, more variety, improved services. That’s what they taught me in school, anyway.
But what about craft brewers? It would definitely provide an easier way to enter the retail market. You could predict an increase in the variety of local brews hitting the shelves. More seasonals, too, as the process of getting shelf space would perhaps be less lengthy and convoluted than that of the LCBO. But here’s the problem: money has influence. To elaborate, those with money have influence. To further elaborate, big beer companies have money and therefore influence, and would likely use it to dominate yet another sales channel.
See, right now no one dictates what bars and restaurants sell. There are no rules about local content or curating a beer list with “green” or “organic” or “preservative-free” products. Owners are, for all intents and purposes, free to sell what ever they want. But history has shown us that this type of system is not necessarily the best thing for craft beer. Big companies have used their money, influence, and brand recognition to dominate taps and beer fridges for decades. There is a secret industry of freebies, kick backs and full on bribing to lock down tap space. Even the most fiercely independent beer bars will accept the occasional “gift”. And I hate to say it, but it’s not just the corporate mega brands. Craft brewers also partake in the festivities when it’s convenient. What other options are there?
The last thing we need is to be dominated in yet another sales channel by the likes in Inbev. Unless the government does a fantastic job of structuring any sort of deregulation – which would ironically enough result in another form of regulation and meddling – we’re dead in the water.
This corner store thing? I’m not sold. Sympathetic to the idea maybe, but as an employee of a small brewery, uh..not convinced.