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Industry “thrilled” as Ontario passes bill allowing beer, wine and cider sales at corner stores

Photo: Canadian Press

Photo: Canadian Press

It’s official. Buying alcohol in Ontario is about to become a whole lot more convenient.  Almost 300 more stores, including corner stores, in Ontario will be selling beer, wine and cider as of next spring.

Finance Minister Vic Fedeli says the number of LCBO agency stores in under serviced areas will rise to 60 in August, and to 200 by spring 2020.

The new locations will be called LCBO Convenience Outlets.

Another 87 grocery stores will also be allowed to sell alcohol starting in September, bringing the total to 450 across the province.

The government has promised to make beer and wine available in corner stores, grocery stores and big box stores.

It passed a bill today to end a 10-year agreement with The Beer Store that limits the number of stores that can sell alcohol.

The Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA), which represents 6,000 neighborhood and family-run businesses, released a statement saying it is “thrilled” at the passage of Bill 115, the Bringing Choice and Fairness to the People Act (Beverage Alcohol Retail Sales), 2019.

“This is fantastic news for Ontarians and the neighbourhood retailers who are a part of every community in this Province,” says OCSA CEO Dave Bryans. “It’s good news for consumers who will get more choice and convenience, good news for Ontario craft breweries and wineries, and sets the stage for job creation for all of our industries.”

The group believes today’s passage of Bill 115 will help bring the system into the modern era: “The diverse selection of craft breweries, wineries, and cideries in Ontario is unique and consumers want to enjoy the products they love while supporting local businesses. Ontario convenience stores believe that expanding to convenience, grocery and big box retail stores will unlock new valuable opportunities.”

The OCSA started its ‘FreeOurBeer.ca’ campaign in the summer of 2011. “Since then we’ve connected with millions of Ontarians in our stores, collected over 400,000 petition signatures, and been having a dialogue with government and industry about the benefits of modernizing beer and wine retailing for Ontario,” said Bryans.  “There is still more work to do, and we look forward to collaborating with all brewers, wineries, and the government to create a system that works to deliver on the goals that Premier Ford committed his government to.”

The group maintains convenience store owners and employees are more than equipped to bring their expertise selling age-restricted products to alcohol sales and states: “The Ontario government is setting up a win-win situation for consumers and businesses. More retailing space for breweries and wineries means more opportunity for business growth and job creation for both producers and retailers – jobs in communities across Ontario and choice and convenience for consumers. Strong growth is possible if small industries are given the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field.

Doug Rosencrans, vice president & general manager, 7-Eleven Canada Inc. released a statement calling the decision good news for for consumers and producers: “7-Eleven is… one of the largest beer retailers in the U.S. – from larger, better-known brands, to craft breweries we help support. We look forward to providing our Ontario customers the same service through beer and wine retailing that’s on the horizon. In our discussions with Ontario craft brewers, we understand that showcasing their products in our stores, and having availability to our customers is a welcomed opportunity. Access to our retail network is open to all beer and wine producers. These positive changes will provide exceptional convenience and choice to our Ontario customers.”

Ontario craft breweries are also welcoming the provincial government’s move to expand beer sales to corner stores, saying the current system limits their products’ exposure to customers.

“I just think it’s fantastic news,” said Scott Simmons, president of the Ontario Craft Brewers, a trade association composed of nearly 100 brewer members.

The way The Beer Store operates makes it difficult for smaller breweries to sell their products there and attract customers, said Todd Lewin, president of Muskoka Brewery. The foreign brewers that own Molson Coors, Labatt and Sleeman mostly own the chain, which operates more than 450 retail stores.

It’s expensive to buy a listing at the store, said Lewin. He estimates it would cost more than $100,000 to sell one type of beer at all the chain’s locations. First, there’s a several-thousand-dollar listing fee and a $230 fee per store, he said. If brewers don’t sell a certain volume every six months or so, Lewin said, they lose that listing.

It’s also hard for craft brewers to have their products noticed in a conventional Beer Store, he said. Many locations prevent consumers from perusing store shelves that may hold new brands to sample.

As a result, craft brewer sales volumes tend to be lower at The Beer Store than at other avenues, like grocery stores, he said.

The change would benefit not only craft brewers, but also consumers and taxpayers, said Simmons. Consumers will have more choice and convenience, and the move will give the economy a boost, he said.

While most of the association’s members express support for corner store beer sales, Simmons said some have asked questions about distribution.

Lewin, for one, wondered how a new distribution model would work to cost effectively bring the brewery’s beers to thousands of new locations.

The Ontario chamber has been working out how distribution will work in this new environment, Simmons said, and has been speaking with third-party organizations.

“I have no concerns whatsoever that we can’t come up with a model that will make it beneficial for our membership to have an expanded retail footprint in the province,” he said. “I wouldn’t even call it a concern. I’d call it a question mark.”

With files from Canadian Press