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Change is afoot in Canadian wine retailing as Ontario wrestles with plans to restructure its liquor distribution laws

Much like the slow and meandering dalliance with Prohibition that laid the foundation for Canada’s current liquor laws, several Provinces are now wending their way cautiously towards a reformed and more contemporary alcohol distribution system. In recent months this progress has been driven by Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, who has opened the discussion about the future of the Province’s liquor sales, and therefore the future of the government-controlled retail monopoly known as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), one of the largest buyers of wine in the world.

Earlier this year, her government decided to shelve a pilot project that would have placed LCBO kiosks in supermarkets across the province. The project was designed to make alcohol purchases more convenient for shoppers. While the decision to halt the project was made supposedly so the government could prepare for more far-reaching reforms, the drinks trade and the wider public are now watching the LCBO’s every move for signs of the political direction to come.

The current interest centres on events happening in a Toronto neighbourhood. Next week (May 25th) will mark the launch of the LCBO’s first Regional Specialty Store. Shoppers of the LCBO Danforth Avenue branch will be the first to experience an Ontario liquor outlet designed specifically to meet the demand of the store’s local demographic, in this case the Greek community. A prominent new section of the store will introduce roughly 100 Greek wines and spirits, tripling the current sparse selection of products from Greece available in a typical LCBO.

Some of the store’s new stock will be allocated from existing wines currently sold only through consignment. This will provide customer access to wines that were previously available for sale only by the case and often incurred delivery costs and delays.

If this pilot is successful, the LCBO plans to open other Regional Specialty Stores that will carry wider selections from specific countries and regions, many of which will be supplied by consignment products, opening the doors to imported wines. Portugal has been slotted for the next store, with others to follow.

For those used to the private sector, this may seem like a small – and perhaps obvious – step towards customer-centric retailing. In the context of a possible fundamental change to LCBO’s status, the progress of the new Regional Specialty Stores will be studied carefully.

Author: Michael Werner