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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.

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