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Brewers Retail, operators of about 450 Beer Store retail outlets, is installing a new online ordering system for its outlets and commercial customers that should make phone orders a thing of the past.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

It remains to be seen whether Ontario residents will indeed get a buck-a-beer as promised by premier-designate Doug Ford, but one thing is looking likely: The distribution of brewed suds across much of Canada is about to receive an upgrade.

Brewers Retail Inc., which operates about 450 outlets of The Beer Store in Ontario and distributes product in Western Canada as Brewers’ Distributor Ltd., is revamping its e-commerce system so that its retail outlets, bars, restaurants and grocery stores will be able to order product more quickly and smoothly.

The target, according to the Mississauga-based company, is a better supply of product and fewer unexpected shortages.

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“All the 450 stores will actually be able to order the beer they require based on customer demand,” says Jennifer Mason, director of information technology for Brewers Retail. “It’s about getting the right beer into the stores at the right time for the consumer.”

The upgrade is coming as a result of a multiphased, operation-wide software switchover. Until recently, Brewers Retail had been operating on a patchwork of systems, some of which were 20 years old.

During the first phase, initiated last spring, software from German tech giant SAP was introduced to manage internal finances. The second phase, this past spring, gave Brewers Retail the ability to integrate its systems with some external suppliers.

In the next phase, beginning in July, the company will adopt SAP’s Hybris e-commerce software, which will improve online ordering for commercial customers such as bars and restaurants, Ms. Mason says.

The current system is clunky, she adds. It isn’t set up to handle grocery stores outside of major cities and requires commercial customers to use a web browser that doesn’t display well on smartphones and other mobile devices. Many continue to phone in orders instead.

Other retailers have long since optimized their websites – including e-commerce stores – for mobile use. Ms. Mason is hopeful the new system will finally modernize The Beer Store experience for customers.

“To be able to go onto a tablet or mobile device … today we can’t do that. Today it’s a website,” she says. “It’s bound to be better for them.”

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While the Brewers Retail technology upgrades are mostly aimed at managing supply for its Beer Store outlets and commercial customers, there will be a trickle down effect for home consumers, making it more efficient for them to prepurchase beer for pickups through their mobile apps.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The company is planning a trial run of the new system with its distribution centre in Timmins, Ont., which services nine of its Beer Stores and 52 commercial customers in the area. If everything goes well, a larger rollout will follow.

The plan is to have all 18,350 commercial customers in Ontario on board by the end of the year, with a switchover at BDL – which serves 17,366 customers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia – happening next year.

The software upgrade is also likely to have direct benefits for consumers, Ms. Mason says, as it will improve the speed and effectiveness of The Beer Store’s smartphone app and its Beer Xpress mobile ordering and home delivery features.

Mobile ordering, where customers can prepurchase beer on their phones and pick it up at a store, will be available in 100 locations by the end of June. Currently, stores can only get inventory reports on a daily basis. The new system will provide them with real-time assessments, which should again result in better supply management.

“I’ll be able to give them better data to run those apps,” Ms. Mason says.

Experts say that offering mobile purchasing options in addition to traditional outlets, a strategy known as “omnichannel,” has by now become table stakes for any retailer.

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Brewers Retail – which is jointly owned by Sleeman Breweries, Labatt Brewing Co. and Molson Coors Brewing Co. – faces limited competition because of Ontario government rules, but the company is under pressure to modernize nevertheless.

“Your customer now determines what channel they want to access that on,” says Alex Atzberger, president of SAP customer experience. “You need to think holistically about the customer and all the different touch points you have.”

Experts also point out that while upgrades are likely to smooth the buying process, the beer industry still faces unique obstacles when it comes to further rolling out e-commerce capabilities.

Home beer delivery, for example, is available only in Ottawa and Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood.

“Digitalization of delivery is not a natural for this category so we wouldn’t expect it to happen as quickly,” says David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto and the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing.

“I’m not sure they’re going to get to the point where home delivery is ever going to be a significant part of the market because it’s a high-volume, heavy product. Home delivery is much more efficient for things that are light.”

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