As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year, it is easy to dwell on the hardships and challenges our industry and communities have had to endure. Throughout the past twelve months, governments and public health units advised people to avoid large crowds and limit the number of outings to just essential trips such as shopping for food. Convenience store owners and consumers were grateful for the government’s quick designation of convenience stores as essential.
For many people, their neighbourhood store has been the closest option to pick up everyday items such as milk, bread, eggs, and cleaning products. Convenient hours and location, the ease of access, lack of lines seen at larger grocery retailers, and the availability of products that cannot be easily purchased elsewhere, such as lottery and tobacco, are just a few reasons why customers increasingly trusted and relied on their local c-store.
Canadians’ dedication to their local convenience store during this time has been encouraging. Despite remaining open, the pandemic has been hard on the bottom line with foot traffic and sales down and operating costs up. In a Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CICC) member survey of close to 3,500 retailers, it was shared that customer counts were down 30% and sales were down 10%, on average. The devastating impact was much greater in downtown centres where the lack of commuters was particularly felt. To serve customers safely, the average spend for personal protective equipment (PPE), installation, increased sanitation, and security and loss prevention was $11,000 per store. Particularly for the family-owned small business shops, these are substantial hits. Still, our doors remain open for the neighbourhoods they serve and continue to provide service with a friendly smile and contributing to the sense of community.
Even in corner stores where snacks, sweets, and soft drinks are staple shelf items, innovation is needed to provide our customers with the degree of choice that they expect. The next step in our industry’s work to serve our customers is currently in the hands of governments: allowing beverage alcohol in convenience stores.
Prior to the pandemic, the push to get beverage alcohol in c-stores was the desire to provide one-stop shopping for that family of four preparing to watch a big game at home. Their game day menu could include chips, sour gummies, soft drinks for the kids, and beer and wine for the parents, and our goal was to allow them the convenience of getting all these items in a single trip to their local c-store.
Now, it’s more than just comfort, it’s about safety. Outside of Quebec, our retailers can fill the game day shopping list, except for beer and wine. These require a separate trip to specialized stores, which is contrary to the public health directives on limiting outings. With economic recovery a priority, the ability to expand our stores’ product mix to include beverage alcohol would allow them to innovate and financially recover. It’s a win-win especially for small store owners, owners of local wineries and local brewing companies, and our customers. With beverage alcohol in our stores, we will be providing our customers the convenience and choice they want.
Earlier this month, the Convenience Industry Council of Canada, with the Ontario Convenience Stores Association, the Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association, and Free My Booze, launched a campaign reminding the Ontario government why modernizing beverage alcohol laws is so important. As individual associations, we have long been advocating on this issue and presenting similar arguments to a government that ran on a promise to allow beer and wine in convenience stores. With a unified and stronger voice, our hope is that we can encourage the Ontario government to meet their commitment to allow responsible beverage alcohol sales in our stores.
Beverage alcohol in convenience stores. Convenience and choice for our customers. It has been a long time coming. It was promised in the last election. It is what our small businesses need. It is what customers want.