Here’s a gift from readers before you stock up at The Beer Store for the Christmas holidays: In their own words, from a Beer Store near you, tales of woe from the front lines of the world’s most mysterious retail wasteland.
Two recent columns detailing the absurdities of Ontario’s foreign-owned beer cartel left my inbox overflowing. No other topic I’ve tackled this year — be it health-care or helicopter scandals, gas plants or pension problems — generated as much response. In the holiday spirit, I’m compelled to share the riches from readers.
One recurring theme: The big bad Beer Store remains a much misunderstood quasi-monopoly. Most readers confessed they hadn’t realized the history of this antiquated institution, wrongly assuming it was a government-run anachronism instead of a foreign-owned cartel.
“Thanks for the best kept secret about foreign owners keeping us at ransom,” wrote Roger Morais. Like many, he complained of “antiquated stores that were designed back in the ’50s . . . that haven’t changed since.”
Perhaps The Beer Store endures because Ontarians are its enablers — a people with a history of deference to authority. An email from Emilia Betkova, an immigrant from Slovakia, shows it can take fresh eyes to expose the blind obedience of Ontarians to the Stalinist absurdities of The Beer Store.
“Wow what a shock it was, a scary experience for an immigrant like me. It looked like an entry to a jail, people lined up dutifully, everybody knowing what they want (seemed like there are only two options available),” she wrote. “Upon prompting, shouting their choice to a surly-looking guy and the stuff would appear on the other side and be pushed over to the end of a table. Trust me, by the time it was my turn to ask for something, I was hoping to disappear somehow.”
Like many readers, Betkova now uses the only available alternative — the LCBO, which stocks mostly foreign and craft beers, but only in six-packs (hence the 80-per-cent stranglehold of The Beer Store). At least the LCBO displays its product line decently, allowing beer lovers to browse in pleasant surroundings to discover new brands.
The monopoly owners of The Beer Store expect customers to know ahead of time which of the dominant brands to ask for — thanks to saturation advertising that keeps the majors top of mind. Their display policies keep competing craft beers out of sight, and thus out of mind.
How did we let this happen? Created in 1927 post-prohibition, The Beer Store began life as the Brewers Warehousing Company — a co-operative among Ontario’s dozens of local brewers that was blessed by Queen’s Park with a monopoly on wholesale distribution.
In 1940, the brewers consolidated their stranglehold by buying out the retail side of the operation. They renamed themselves Brewers Retail, becoming — as the name once implied — a fully integrated operation from production to sales. Decades later, thanks to globalization, the monopoly is run by a foreign-owned partnership between Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors and Sapporo — based, improbably, in Belgium, Brazil, Japan and America.
Thus engorged, Brewers Retail downsized its name to the more humble Beer Store. The rest is history. And an embarrassment to the province.
The Beer Store is “the dreariest outlet mall operation in pursuit of a pleasurable product as I’ve ever experienced,” wrote Larry King.
The stores are “dirty, with dusty bottles displayed” in an “outdated service model,” wrote Martin Alderwick. “The LCBO is delightful in comparison.”
The Beer Store’s “atmosphere is outdated and ugly,” said Graham Austin. “There are small amounts of stock out on the floor and it is difficult to know what beers are available due to the small signs on the wall.”
Tim Little, a longtime unionist, made the keen observation that most people assume The Beer Store is government-owned by virtue of its “dreary, early-Stalinist architecture.” What private company would go out of its way to discourage browsing and customer retention in seedy surroundings?
Ontarians have grown up with The Beer Store. Many had grown used to it. Now they’ve outgrown it. And the more they know about its ownership and monopoly methods, the less they like it.
Martin Regg Cohn