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culture

Ontario’s Beer Wars

The province's Beer Store and convenience stores are battling over beer sales—why some Beer Store employees have joined the fight, and who's helping them.

As calls for changes to Ontario’s beer and liquor distribution system grow louder, the ongoing debate between the Beer Store—the province’s legislated, mostly foreign-owned beer retail monopoly—and the Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA)—a provincial association representing 7,500 convenience stores—has grown increasingly contentious.

At issue is control of the sale of beer in the province. As our legislation currently stands, brewers can sell their beer in just three places: their own (typically geographically inconvenient) store on-site at their brewery, the LCBO, or the Beer Store—which is owned by AB InBev, Molson-Coors, and Sapporo, three of the world’s biggest brewers. The province’s convenience stores, represented by the paid-membership OCSA, desperately want a piece of the booze-selling action. What’s arisen is a publicity war aimed at winning the hearts and minds of beer-drinking Ontarians.

The Beer Store commissioned studies showing that beer prices will rise if sales are deregulated; the OCSA responded with another commissioned study that indicated prices would go down (although it was later suggested the group didn’t deny prices might actually rise).

The OCSA released statements outlining its record for checking IDs when it comes to tobacco and lottery sales, and the Beer Store released an ad showing the orgy of teenage drinking that might result from corner-store booze sales—an ad (embedded above) that went on to be thoroughly mocked.

Indeed, each study from one side seems to be met shortly thereafter with an equally authoritative response from the other side—ultimately, the only thing being shown with any degree of certainty is that you can come up with statistics to prove almost anything. Of course, we’re sure forfty per cent of all people already know that.

And it’s not just the lobbying groups that are entering the fray. Some of the the Beer Store’s 7,000 employees seem to have taken it upon themselves to become active in the conversation. Beer Store workers now rank among those most active in leading arguments in public forums like call-in radio shows and social media, and their responses litter the comment sections of many an article on the subject. But how much of the engagement is genuine? Are they being prompted by head office to bolster the position of their multinational overlords? Are these forthright citizens genuinely concerned for the well-being of Ontarians? Or are they, as many have charged, simply interested in protecting their jobs?

As you might expect, given that the exclusive right to sell beer in Ontario represents vast, Scrooge-McDuck-swimming-in-gold sums of money, there is some evidence that suggests the powers that be are mobilizing their employees to take up the fight in their name.

Miller, a Beer Store employee who asked that his name be changed for fear of reprisal, tells me that, while no specific orders to act have been issued, it’s clear that head office wants employees to speak out—and they are frequently given tools to help them do so. “We get periodic emails from [Beer Store president] Ted Moroz with links to polls in local papers and op-eds both for and against deregulation,” he says.

Miller forwarded us one such email from Moroz intended to “update [employees] on the success of our ongoing efforts to educate Ontarians about alcohol deregulation.” The email includes a healthy mix of useful statistics and encouragement well-suited to providing employees with the tools to participate in the ongoing debate, and the target of the near-propaganda seems pretty clear:

The facts also show that the Beer Store is unmatched in terms of responsible sales. You deserve credit for your diligence in ID’ing all customers who look 25 and under. Last year you challenged 3.6 million customers—and refused service to over 111,000 consumers for being underage or intoxicated. Can convenience stores match that? The facts say no. [original emphasis]

Our survey of tobacco sales at more than 180 convenience stores across Ontario found that, on average, stores failed to ID an underage buyer 1 in 5 times. It was even worse in Toronto, where more than half the stores sold cigarettes to a 17-year-old. Next door in New York State, the same holds true for alcohol sales in convenience stores.

For his part, Ted Moroz maintains the communications materials is not intended to fuel the argument. “We don’t encourage employees to debate customers,” he told us, “and we certainly don’t tell them what to do outside work hours.”

Moroz admits that the intention behind the brochure the Beer Store created and distributed widely was that employees would distribute it to customers, but, as he says, “If they don’t want it, they don’t take it.” Emails and communications directed to Beer Store employees, Moroz says, are intended simply to keep them educated. “We want [our employees] to be informed, just as we want all Ontarians to be informed.”

Ally, a Beer Store employee who was happy to have her real name used in this article and is the type of employee wont to say things like “We love what we do, and we really do want the best for the customers,” disagrees that this type of communications material is intended to mobilize the troops and concurs with Moroz that any extracurricular debate is wholly voluntary.

“We are not directly encouraged to speak up,” she says. “But if the company you work for is being attacked, wouldn’t you want to defend it?”

Ally attributes the employee activity on social media to the fact that the Beer Store’s sales force includes many young people already active on such platforms who’ve simply become motivated to “speak up on what we believe is right.”

And indeed, while claims that young people are defending the Beer Store just because they believe it’s what’s right might make most craft beer fans respond with a certain skepticism, Ally’s enthusiasm for the cause does seem genuine. She’s emphatic that her ongoing participation in the public debate is totally voluntary. “Employees of TBS have always been aware of what is going on with the company,” she says. “We take our jobs seriously, so when someone like the OCSA is threatening our jobs and downplaying our role in Ontario, we take it very personally.”

Miller claims that the upswing in vocal support from employees, regardless of who is initiating it, is likely motivated by intentions less noble than Ally’s. “The employees who are active in the debate in social, broadcast, and print media are acting out of self-preservation,” he says. “Their main concern is the risk of losing their job if the market is opened. The Beer Store gig is a pretty decent job when you’re a full timer: it’s hard to get fired, the pay is reasonable, and there are benefits. I think most of the employees who are actively participating in the discussion are mostly just concerned about their jobs.”

Ally concedes that, sure, she feels her job is being threatened—but maintains that she really does believe the Beer Store is the better option for retail beer in Ontario. “The OCSA wants to create more minimum-wage jobs with no job security in high-theft work environments for Ontarians? No thanks,” she says, noting that the current system works just fine. “Our logistics and recycling system works amazingly, yet the OCSA basically says everything we do can be outsourced. They don’t just want to sell alcohol,” she warns. “They want it all.” And if there is going to be change, at least in term of craft beer sales, she doesn’t think the OCSA is the right answer. “I personally agree with having stores similar to the Wine Rack to sell Ontario beers. Having them in Ontario convenience stores will not do them justice.”

Miller, for his part, seems willing to put the prospect of an improved retail environment ahead of his own immediate employment interests. “I think this current model is ridiculous,” he says. “Beer should be sold in an open market, like it is just about everywhere else in the world. I would gladly sacrifice my job to be able to live in a province that treats its citizens like adults.”

Whether or not the province will make any changes, of course, remains to be seen. Given that none of the three major parties have seen fit to mention the province’s retail alcohol industry in their platforms, the debate seems likely to rage on.

Comments

  • OgtheDim

    Word on the Globe blog today is Labatts was one of the bigger donors to the PCPO. Not a huge amount: $19275.

  • Graeme

    Fuck the beer store.

  • http://www.twitter.com/may24reasons Facts, Beer Facts

    The convenience store angle is a distraction. Ontario needs to dump the allegedly law breaking cartel in favour of neutral regulatory licenses issued from the AGCO to retailers.

    This means Costco, Superstore, Sobey’s, Specialty stores, and yes, CStores et.al. The Beer Store can still exist, but it will exist in on level and regulated playing field. This DOES not mean overnight liberalization of alcohol. It means allowing new entrants in the ‘low’ alcohol content market to allow natural competition.

    The Beer Store, ABInbev, MolsonCoors, and Sapporo must be consciously feigning ignorance of the 17 000 restaurants and bars, OLG retailers and other private licensees that abide by regulations in the age-restricted marketplace.

    Break the rules? You’re Gone

    Break the trust of consumers, businesses, and Canada’s laws? You’re Gone (emphasis here for The Beer Store)

    The competition Bureau is looking into the Beer Store pricing relative to provinces, I hope they’re also looking inside the province for other potential competition law violations.

    https://twitter.com/May24Reasons/status/476879961320460288/photo/1

    As a Footnote:

    Ally, I appreciate your forthcoming with details. But I hardly believe you are just an average part-time employee. Ex provincial Chief of staff now Labatt corporate affairs, ex MolsonCoors corporate affairs exec, Beer Store pres, OPPAssociation, HarbingerPR employee that is on social media in support of MolsonCoors (client?) and TBS, these are some of your twitter followers.

    I am not surprised you managed to find my ‘name’ all the way up in Parry Sound. You are a great example of why one would want to protect their identity. Cheers to spreading more FUD.

    May the chips lay where they fall when all FACTS are out in the open.

    • TheSotSays

      Yeah, well I’ll take the beer store over a mouthy piece of crud convenience store detective like you, any day of the week.

  • wklis

    In Albert, all stores have to handle returns on all returnable items, including soft drinks containers.

    End the LCBO & Beer Store cartel.

  • http://www.twitter.com/may24reasons Facts, Beer Facts

    I am sure your followers love your contribution to the honest above board public discussion. Lets hear from them. Thanks for the compliment.

  • torontothegreat

    real employee

    Of the f’n beer store. Give it a break, your bias is strange and your stake in the game is different than that of a consumer.

    I didn’t realize they sold kool-aid over at the beer store now? I’d suggest laying off it. Your employment doesn’t somehow trump fair consumerism, in fact it makes you a stooge.

  • torontothegreat

    And pray tell, how will we not get the same level of completely incompetent service that we have grown accustomed to at the beer store?

    Beer will cost more? Sorry, this has been dispelled many times over. I will also get better choices and an opportunity to extend my support of the local economy at more outlets.

  • http://www.twitter.com/may24reasons Facts, Beer Facts

    Ally “More min wage jobs!!!!” Reality: “I started at Minimum wage at the beer store!” like 5000 other part timers at the beer store. Yeesh

  • http://www.twitter.com/may24reasons Facts, Beer Facts

    That’s line #1 on channel zero above

  • OgtheDim

    Not sure about that endless number of microbreweries getting their stuff actually sold.

    A recent trip to Montreal and I saw 1 micro brewery represented in the downtown – McAuslan.

    • torontothegreat

      Do you really base conclusions on such flimsy data? In the age of “information” with virtually all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips, how can you actually justify being that ignorant, so consistently?

      Peluso ALONE carries over 400 microbreweries from Quebec.

      Like, seriously. Google, it’s your damn friend – USE IT. It’s exactly this kind of ignorance that creates confusion when people are seeking actual facts.

      • TheSotSays

        You probably drink your NDP at room temperature.

      • OgtheDim

        Not sure indicates I did not have a conclusive view.

        As for consistently being ignorant, debate happens and people disagree with you……life goes on.

        • torontothegreat

          You didn’t say “I’m not sure” as in YOU were unsure, you said “Not sure about that” as in doubting the OPs claim that “endless number of microbreweries getting their stuff actually sold.”

          Jesus H Christ you have issues…

          • OgtheDim

            You seem to have a different understanding of what phrases mean then I do. As I’m the one that typed those, consider that maybe, just maybe, I actually KNOW the meaning of what I’m typing.

            Shall we parse this?

            “Not sure”

            There is an assumed pronoun in this. The personal one.

            I was saying I was not sure. I have doubts.

            Where I went in Montreal, there could be found no beers in stores outside of one micro and the big breweries. And, believe me, I was looking.

            Do I ignore my own eyes?

            Or, in the gathering of information that we do on the internet, do I just throw out that personal experience to be used by others in their own conclusion development based on the relevance people want to put on such experience?

            I prefer the latter.

            Is it how you gather information? Nope

            But, IMHO, the idea that information provided on the net is the only information we can use is false.

            *************

            Oh, and before you get on me again for not wanting to gather information through the internet, I’ve been trolling on the internet for information since before the web existed. I’ve had people on here yelling at me for views I raised due to me scanning press releases daily from the early part of the last decade.

            From my experience of having the simultaneous job of gathering information through internet searches and interviewing thousands of people about that information, I have noted that information provided through observation provides a nuance not possible through net searches only.

            Now, does observation provide us with all the information relevant to a discussion? No, as individual observations are never without bias and are by definition limited.

            Likewise, web pages provided by institutions and individuals almost always provide information in the best light possible. In my experience, many web pages are aspirational in what things could be. Reality is almost always different.

            Aggregators of opinions are probably the best providers of information – which is why so many companies juice their app ratings on Google Play or Amazon or Yelp ratings. Its a variation of the old movie ads that said “Critics agree” and then went on to use snippets from 5 different critics.

            It would be nice if every issue in the world had a Rotten Tomatoes critique aggregator out there.

            What we get is something more like State and Twitter. Everybody can say something – few try to back it up with observations.

          • TheSotSays

            Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

          • torontothegreat

            You’re confusing observation with inference.

            However it doesn’t matter because KNOWN FACTS > (inference || observations)

        • Richard Sharp

          you are partially right. most convenience stores in Mtl have crappy selection. Except Peluso has a brilliant business model, has amazing QUEBEC selection and is always busy.

    • TheSotSays

      Did you ever sell chickens in Alvinston?

  • OgtheDim

    Service at the beer Store?

    ooooooookkkkkkkkkkkkkk

  • OgtheDim

    Mt. Albert

    • TheSotSays

      Yeah that’s right you’re from Mt. A-Hole. Should have know it everyone from there is illiterate. Your mother must have been the school teacher.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    I’ll say it: If the choices are an oppressive foreign monopoly or higher prices, I’m OK with higher prices.

  • http://www.twitter.com/may24reasons Facts, Beer Facts

    sidenote Harley: The Beer Store advocates higher floor prices for social responsibility (or better margins?). Arguing from both sides is a recipe for failure.

  • estta

    That’s what I don’t get. How would carding for beer be any different than carding for cigarettes.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      It wouldn’t be, but the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt perpetuate the myth that alcohol is like a box of matches in a fireworks factory. Tobacco kills far, far, far, far more Ontarians each year than alcohol and alcohol-related causes.

  • PaidConservativeSupporter#64

    Yeah, but they do deposits on pop cans and plastic bottles so you’re not just bringing back your beer empties.

  • SeniorsRule

    There is only one way to bypass all the Beer Store/Cstore debate and that is to homebrew. My pub is open 24/7/365. I haven’t step foot in the Beer Store in years and never will. I like paying $10.00 a case for “real” beer and not what they charge at the BS/LCBO. The Beer Store loses business and the gov’t gets zero in taxes. I would start to buy beer again if Ontario Craft Brewers would open their own stores, but I don’t see that happening soon. Ontario is 100 years behind the rest of the world for beer retail, sad. Americans laugh their head off when I tell them all about the Beer Store and who owns them.

    • Richard Sharp

      can your pub make a great lambic, flanders red or quad? Usually, the answer is no.

      • SeniorsRule

        My “pub” only serves beer, not make it, I make it. My point is I don’t need the Beer Store to enjoy beer. Besides, what does lambic, flanders red or quad have to do with the Beer Store? Jerk.

        • Richard Sharp

          “There is only one way to bypass all the Beer Store/Cstore debate and that is to homebrew. ”

          I pointed out that there isn’t one way to bypass. The way to bypass is to allow an open market.

          I homebrew and I also buy beer. I just bought a shitload from Michigan – NOT Ontario. Whoops! Now that’s yet another way to bypass the debate.

  • Richard Sharp

    any time i see Ally post something, part of me dies a horrible death.

  • Ben Johnson

    I don’t really understand this comment. It doesn’t actually seem to be in response to anything I said in the article. Is it copied and pasted from an argument you made under a different article?

    Anyway, I wanted to clear up at least one thing: Your first point re: Mostly foreign-owned vs. 100% foreign owned. I did the Beer Store the courtesy of acknowledging that one of their owners, Molson-Coors, is 50% Canadian owned, thus the store is “mostly” foreign owned.