With the changes to the Ontario beer and wine retailing landscape imminent, I thought it might be time to float another idea for the much hated Beer Store. This may sound radical, but hear me out… let’s save the Beer Store itself! But, and there is a very big but here… we need to completely, and I do mean completely, alter how it operates.
The Beer Store actually has a couple of great things going for it; it has a bottle recycling program that is the envy of the world and it has a very efficient distribution network. Those things are actually worth preserving.
Everything else however, needs to go.
The first major change would be to dissolve the Beer Store ownership stake as it stands and redistribute the shares of the Beer Store to EVERY SINGLE ONE of the 200+ breweries in Ontario. Every brewery, regardless of how many brands they sell (or have consolidated under a single company) would get one vote and an equal share of the business. Basically we’d be going back to what the original Brewer’s Retail was intended to be, a co-operative of all provincial brewers, pooling resources to save costs and safely get beer in the hands of Ontarians. This would offer a more level playing field for all brewers, but more importantly, give consumers more choice.
Next thing is to put an end to the Soviet style retail experience. This would likely be a very costly endeavour, but would eventually pay dividends to the Beer Store over time. By putting the beer back out where people can see it, touch it and actually read packaging; they’d be able truly browse for a product. Newer stores have been improving the model by separating the bottle returns from the retail area, but it needs to go a step further. The best possible current retail experience is the Beer Boutique. If you’ve never been to one, there are two Toronto locations; one in the Distillery District and the other in Liberty Village. It’s an open concept with multiple open air coolers and floor displays. Nothing is in the back except extra stock. It doesn’t have an empties return area, but it could with a separate entrance like some of the newer stores. This is a much better way to sell beer in Ontario.
Lastly, the front line staff who deal with customers should be educated about the product they are selling. I’ll admit this is a little self serving because I am a beer educator, but I think it would vastly improve the customer experience. Beer isn’t what it was 10 or 15 years ago. There are so many more styles to choose from and a seemingly infinite number of flavour profiles. Staff at these stores really need to know what they are selling to make solid recommendations when asked.
By making these radical changes, the beer retailing sector would be able to compete against it’s largest rivals, the wine and flavoured alcoholic beverage categories, instead of each other. I will admit that this plan is rather simplistic and does lack some of the finer points necessary to make it work, but if the government is going to make changes to retailing I thought this might be an interesting place to start.