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Questions brewing on B.C. grocery store liquor sales

It seems like an eternity ago that liquor sales in B.C. were banned on Sundays. It didn't stop people from drinking, of course, and eventually the government realized that the public wasn't abiding by the laws of the Sabbath the way it once did, and so allowed booze sales to begin flowing.

And so it will be one day with the sale of liquor in the province's grocery stores, a development being recommended to cabinet by Liberal MLA John Yap, the government's point man on liquor reform. While a final decision is not expected until next year, it seems inconceivable cabinet will reject something for which consumers have long been thirsting.

That does not mean that plenty of questions were not left after a news conference on Thursday at which Mr. Yap made public his support for the move. Among the biggest head-scratchers is just precisely how it would all work, given that Mr. Yap is also suggesting the moratorium on the number of liquor outlets in the province – currently about 926, of which 730 are private – remain in place. (This is to address industry concerns that adding more liquor stores would degrade the value of existing retail licenses).

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Allowing the sale of booze in grocery stores is just one of 70 recommendations Mr. Yap has made to government. The scope and nature of the other 69 for now remain a mystery.

Perhaps they will explain how retail outlets would open in grocery stores if Mr. Yap is also suggesting that the overall number of liquor shops not increase. It would mean that before an outlet could open in a grocery store, one somewhere else would have to close.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, 20 liquor outlets close in 2014 and a few hundred grocery stores want to sell alcohol. Who determines which ones get the coveted licences? Given how attractive a supermarket selling liquor would be for shoppers, the decisions could become politically fraught. Just think of the advantage the grocer selling booze will have over the one a few hundred yards away that does not.

I also wonder how keeping the moratorium would not hurt the government's bottom line.

Most grocery stores could not turn over as much space to alcohol as a typical government or private liquor store. One would presume that if you dramatically shrink the amount of space you provide for your product, it will affect your overall sales. Beyond that, grocery stores are not likely to stock as much high-end inventory, which comes with a higher price tag and delivers more revenue to government. Unless, perhaps, Mr. Yap imagines some costs savings by shrinking the number of government-run, union-staffed liquor stores in favour of privately run grocery outlets.

Also, it is unclear what, exactly, is in this for grocery stores. One would presume most would want an alcohol outlet because it would drive customers in their direction. But they are not going to give up floor space for nothing. They are going to want some sort of cut beyond just leasing out the space. What will that do to liquor prices that are already much higher than most jurisdictions in the country?

I think most British Columbians interpreted Thursday's announcement by Mr. Yap as a signal that in the near future, they will be able to pick up a six-pack and bottle of wine along with their steak and salad makings. But as things stand now, that will certainly not be the case.

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To all these questions, Mr. Yap says wait and see. "These are important questions and details that have to be addressed," he said in an interview on Friday. "How existing licenses might be transferred, the rules around mobility of licenses, all this needs to be studied."

My guess is that the roar from angry consumers upset about the uneven playing field for grocery stores will be loud enough to unnerve the government and make liquor outlets available in them all. And one day in B.C., people will not be able to imagine how they ever managed without them.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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