Modernizing Beer Stores is a win-win for consumers and brewers

Sylvain CharleboisThe Ford government is once again considering the end of Ontario’s Beer Stores. According to the Toronto Star, there is no intention of renewing the 10-year Master Framework Agreement, which imposes stringent restrictions on the sale of beer in Ontario venues other than the designated retailer.

The Ford government has less than a month to commit to a new contract or not. The current agreement expires in 2025. However, it’s high time for Ontario to move on from this archaic business model that has been around for far too long.

Founded in 1927, The Beer Stores in Ontario are thought to be the sole foreign-owned oligopoly controlling the retail sale of beer in Canada’s food industry. This is quite peculiar when you consider it. The Beer Stores operate 420 stores throughout the province, have eight distribution centres, and employ almost 7,000 people.

This chain is primarily owned by Molson, Labatt, and Sleeman, with a few smaller breweries owning stakes in the chain. In fact, many Ontarians believe that Beer Stores are government-owned because that’s the impression they often get when visiting one of them. Going to a Beer Store in Ontario feels as mundane as buying bread in Europe during the Great War – devoid of personality or excitement and downright boring.

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It’s hard to imagine why Ontarians still accept a sub-par experience when buying beer. Other provinces would never put up with it. The beer world has indeed changed, but apparently, not in Ontario.

The Beer Store chain doesn’t have to be eliminated. For one, in the current flawed system, only the Beer Store can sell some discounted cases. Eliminating this restriction would have a significant impact on competition and create a more level playing field. It would give more options to consumers. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to redecorate stores and make them more inviting. Right now, some of them just look like a prettied-up warehouse, and some people just take your order. In retailing, the Beer Store is far from being a benchmark.

Ontarians have also enjoyed the luxury of returning bottles to the same place of purchase. Perhaps, beyond 2025, Beer Stores could also play a role by continuing to accept beer bottles while the province figures out a different method to preserve the necessary green logistics to support a recycling strategy. Again, other provinces have figured out different systems. Surely, Ontario can come up with a new plan.

Changes are long overdue because of the countless small, local microbrewers who struggle to secure any shelf space at the Beer Store due to the dominance of a retail distribution oligopoly. These microbrewers need recognition and support so that market access in their own province is not an issue. It’s a straightforward decision that would benefit both consumers and those who foster job creation.

The evolving and sometimes awkward relationship Ontarians have had with alcohol over the years has indeed been truly intriguing. The Beer Store stands as an emblem of that distinctive relationship. Ontario has changed over the years, and so should the province’s beer distribution policies.

But ultimately, this outdated model has become obsolete and hinders the free and competitive beer market. For consumers in Ontario, it’s time to modernize and open the beer market in Ontario. Free the beer!

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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