Liquor Retailing in Sask: the Gov’t wants to hear from YOU

(First of all – where have I been? Let’s say I was on a mind-bending 6-month craft beer journey of discovery.*)

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, Saskies… the government wants to know what reforms our liquor retailing system needs.

I’ve mentioned my opinion on this subject before (even more often on Twitter).

They’ve provided a couple of excellent background documents covering the history of liquor retailing in Saskatchewan; the public debate over liquor retailing in Canada; and the options under consideration:

  1. Status Quo
  2. Expanded Private Retail System
  3. Alberta-Style Fully Private Retail System (as Murray Mandryk notes, this is a bit of a red herring if the warehousing & mark-up model remain the same – which the government says they will)
  4. Managed Transition to Fully Private Retail (selling existing public stores to private sector liquor operators. Differs from option 3, which would see existing stores simply closed & sold – not necessarily remaining liquor stores)
  5. Expanded Government Retail System (this is really a non-starter, as the government has already committed to not building another public liquor store)

The government has framed the discussion as one of “liquor retailing,” and isn’t opening the door (at the moment) to reviewing warehousing, distribution, tax policy, mark-up policy, etc. I’d be happy to see vastly expanded private liquor retailing, but without further reforms, it’s just tinkering around the edges (important tinkering, but tinkering nonetheless). True reform also requires a review of the government’s involvement in ALL aspects of Saskatchewan’s liquor regime.

Warehousing & Distribution

If private stores are still required to source through SLGA’s antiquated warehousing, special order & distribution system, it’s not much better than status quo.

warehouseSLGA’s inventory system is antiquated. It simply can’t handle the number of unique products that a modern liquor system must carry. To their credit, in many cases they’ve clearly attempted back-end work-arounds… but the fact is that each new product essentially means de-listing another product, or finding a work-around. This is a clear disincentive to carrying new products, engaging local producers, or simply keeping up.

Yes, the SLGA has selected a new inventory management platform, and are building a new warehouse, but both of these illustrate the problem with the current environment… SLGA… moves…. at… a… snail’s…………..pace. These should have been in place years ago – in anticipation of a changing retail environment (the changes haven’t exactly snuck up on us over the past year or two). From what I hear, the inventory system is significantly behind schedule – so I wouldn’t bet on improvements any time soon.

Put Local Producers First

SaskIf our producers are still required to supply the private stores using SLGA’s Regina warehouse – rather than direct selling to retailers (as they currently can to bars, restaurants & pubs) – then the Saskatchewan craft spirits, brewing & wine industry will remain short of its potential due to nothing more than bureaucracy. For example, Paddock Wood can sell a keg directly to Congress Beer House in Saskatoon, but if they want to supply a Saskatoon liquor store (public or private), they have to send the product to SLGA’s Regina warehouse… SLGA then sends it back to Saskatoon. #FacePalm

A Local First policy is also critical if SLGA is to remain relevant in the retail landscape. Use the public system for the primary reason it was created: achieving public policy goals (the other key goal is obviously revenue). A stated public policy goal of this government is encouraging investment & economic growth. Entrepreneurs are key drivers of this growth. Let’s use SLGA stores a vehicle to showcase our local craft breweries, distilleries & wineries & encourage more entrepreneurs to enter the market. BC, Ontario & Quebec all use their public liquor stores to showcase local products. Rather than giving local SLGA managers the option, mandate that any public store a Saskatchewan producer wishes to be carried in, must accommodate the local product (ahead of other products).

Fox Guarding the Henhouse

foxIf we expect private retailers to come to this province, we need to correct a glaring conflict of interest.

I don’t mind the provincial government continuing to operate a system of public liquor stores – but the field must be level. At present, the SLGA is in a clear conflict-of-interest: they are both the regulator of all liquor retailers (public & private) in Saskatchewan, AND a direct competitor to the private retailers.

Imagine if Coca-Cola regulated Pepsi. Or Apple regulated Google. It’s nonsense. Even looking at other public bodies – SaskTel doesn’t regulate Bell, Telus or Rogers’ Saskatchewan operations… If public stores are to remain alongside private stores, the Government of Saskatchewan must separate SLGA’s retail/warehousing/distribution & Regulatory functions.

The most logical model is a Crown Corporation (let’s call it SaskLiquor). Specifically, the structure should ensure that SaskLiquor has no direct or indirect reporting relationship with the liquor regulators at SLGA.

Why is this split necessary? Simple: transparency & fairness. When Willow Park was granted a liquor franchise, there were conditions applied to their license. One of these conditions was that they must order all product through SLGA. OK, sure… seems somewhat reasonable. Another condition was that they couldn’t carry any products that SLGA carried. The intent was for Willow Park to delivery niche products…so this requirement made some sense. An interesting thing happened, though. The products that were selling well at Willow Park started getting listed & carried by the SLGA (pure coincidence, I’m sure – SLGA didn’t cherry-pick using insider business knowledge). Great for consumers, not so great for Willow Park, as SLGA’s move forced them to stop carrying their best-selling products.

Under the new licences, private stores can carry any products they wish – even if SLGA carries them – so the specific scenario above is now moot, but the principle remains: private retailers are at a severe disadvantage if their largest competitor also has the authority to dictate the rules of the game, or use insider information to gain a competitive advantage… this is the current situation in Saskatchewan.

If Premier Wall truly wishes to develop a competitive environment for liquor retailing in Saskatchewan, the private stores must have confidence that they will be able to compete fairly with the public system.

UnknownEnsure Your Voice is Heard

These are just my thoughts – be sure to let the government know what you think. The survey has a comment box at the end, but they are also welcoming feedback by email: liquorretail@gov.sk.ca

 

 

* because this sounds better than saying that “life” and “my day job” took priority for a few months.

The future of private liquor retailing in Saskatchewan?

I’ll preface this post by saying that effective & responsive Crown Corporations (and government entities) can play an important role in the marketplace. ATB, SaskTel, Manitoba Hydro, and public Liquor Boards/Commissions (such as the SLGA in Sask, LCBO in Ontario, or SAQ in Quebec) play multiple roles in the market. Key among these roles is achieving a public policy objective.

The key descriptors for me are effective, responsive & relevant.

Background

I was looking at the history of Regina’s Bushwakker Brew Pub and noticed that the provincial government took a similar approach to easing the public into the brewpub concept as seems to be playing out with the privatization of liquor sales. In 1989, the Conservative government issued licenses for 4 brewpubs (2 in Regina, 2 in Saskatoon). This served to test public opinion, and to give incumbent hotel Off-Sales time to adjust to the new market reality. Obviously, over time the government expanded brewpub licensing extensively.

(I won’t go into the negative impact the brewpub licenses had on the Sask’s craft brewing scene in this post: summary – “brewpubs” were opened, and garbage product was produced simply to meet the technical requirements necessary to operate an Off-Sale)

Current Status

I see a similar future playing out for liquor privatization:

Options for the Future

So, the government has exited the liquor retailing scene for all new liquor stores. They will continue to operate the existing network of public stores (LBs) – competing directly with the private sector. 03_14_reg_liquorplan_rossromaniuk1At some point, it would seem to make sense to consider flipping the switch & privatizing liquor warehousing/retailing completely (though, this logic could be extended to SaskTel, which has competed directly with the private sector (and a co-op) for years in the provision of television, Internet, local phone, and cellular services… and there’s little indication of a looming  SaskTel privatization).

Privatization of liquor retailing and warehousing is certainly a way for government to have their cake & eat it too: they get out of the expensive bricks/mortar retail operation (and potentially warehousing), but maintain public policy control, and a revenue stream (they still charge markup on products).

Really, I don’t care who sells the alcohol to me (or my pub) – so my gripe isn’t with the public system itself… it’s with SLGA’s attitude: customer service, continuous improvement, responsiveness to changing needs seem almost non-existent. While it’s true that a customer can theoretically order almost any product in the world, there are minimum order requirements & layers of bureaucratic red tape that leaves even seasoned veterans – such as Willow Park Wines (currently SK’s only private liquor store) & Beer Brothers – shaking their heads. Beer Brothers had a near constant supply issue for the first few years of operation – and they quite publicly placed much of the blame at SLGA’s feet (along with some positive suggestions, of course).

As a point of reference, AGLC indicates they had 2,200 products available at the time of privatization. They currently maintain an inventory of over 19,000 products (with 33,000 registered in their system).

In terms of retail, in 1993, Edmonton had 23 liquor stores – they currently have 262 liquor retailers.

Treatment of Regional Producers

The other issue I have with the current system is SLGA’s apparent disinterest in regional brewers & distillers. Saskatchewan producers indicate that getting their Sask-made product into SLGA stores is exceptionally difficult. Molson/Labatt/Sleemans had a strangle-hold on SKUs & SLGA seems exceptionally happy to bend over backwards to stock the macro-brewers’ products.

This is an abdication of the public policy role of government-run liquor system. In theory, the public system exists to introduce elements of public policy into liquor sales – for example, location, hours of sale, and “social reference pricing.”

Paddock Wood BrewingIt is not much of a stretch for the government to implement a public policy preference for local/regional products. This doesn’t mean not responding consumers, it simply means giving a bit of a leg-up to local/regional brewers. We see public policy policies giving preference, or a leg-up, to wine & craft beer producers in BC, AB & ON – why not Saskatchewan producers? I have seen much better selection (& product rotation/refrigeration)  of Paddock Wood’s products in several Alberta liquor stores than I’ve ever seen in a Saskatchewan LB. This is an award-winning brewery…being treated like gold in another province, but like a second-class citizen at home. Sad.

Shared Warehousing?

While it’s nice to see SLGA trying to improve (e.g. marginally improved craft beer selection), it strikes me as too little, too late. Rather than committing to build a brand new warehouse in Regina, it would have been interesting to explore a warehousing partnership with Alberta under the frame of the New West Partnership (especially given that Alberta will break ground on an $80-million warehouse & logistics facility within days). The benefits to Saskatchewan under such a partnership include access to products not otherwise available (due to minimum purchase requirements); reduced overhead costs; volume discounts; and access to a state of the art facility & dedicated logistics partner.

Presumably, Sask could offset Alberta’s incremental costs, and contribute to operational costs. Many of the warehouse expenses are sunk costs – so Sask’s contribution could result in (marginally) reduced costs to Alberta taxpayers/consumers (not to mention, offload the cost to Sask taxpayers of building, maintaining & operating a warehouse and distribution network).

To Be Fair

puppies-n-rainbowsOf course, privatization is not all puppies & rainbows. Over the 20 years since Alberta privatized their liquor system, several reports have examined the impact on selection and pricing.

While it’s true that there is incentive for specialty stores to pop up – for example, Sherbrooke Liquor in Edmonton; and Willow Park Wines & Spirits in Calgary – there are also many examples of stores in smaller centres carrying a narrow selection of high-volume products. These stores are making a market-driven decision to sell the highest volume products. If consumers demanded a particular product, all liquor retailers in Alberta have access to the 19,000 products stocked in the LiquorConnect warehouse… all at the same price – no volume discounts for the “big guys.”

Pricing is also a constant debate – on the one hand, we certainly hear of the incredible deals that are to be had at Superstore Liquor & Costco via loss-leaders. The overall price of a product in Alberta can vary widely … it is the free market, after all. Some reports indicate that Alberta held the dubious honour of the highest liquor prices in Canada (until last year, when Sask edged them out)… despite privatization. Of course, other reports – such as the Mark Milke’s report for the Fraser Institute – debate this point.

The Edmonton Journal & Huffington Post looked at Alberta’s changed landscape, the benefits, and the pitfalls. David Campanella’s paper specifically recommended Sask not follow Alberta’s lead.

On-Balance? Privatize

Saskatchewan consumers are starting to wake up to the great craft beers that are out there. They are beginning to see Molson-Coors, InBev & other macros for what they are: purveyors of low-quality liquid. They are asking for better product selection. SLGA is responding – albeit slowly – by introducing craft beer section with A-list products from brewers such as Rogue, Brooklyn, Half Pints, etc… but the selection is still quite limited, and most LBs still feature very few local products (in fact, the private sector Off-Sales seem more responsive to local producers).

The next couple of years will be very interesting for Saskatchewan craft beer enthusiasts – let’s just hope the provincial government takes a close look at the Alberta experience, and cherry-picks the best features for Saskatchewan consumers.

On balance, I will take my chance on the private sectorif only for the demonstrable improvement to craft beer selection 😉