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The Globe and Mail

Why beer and wine in Ontario should be more convenient

Tom Moher believes it's a matter of time before every province legalizes private-store wine, beer and spirit sales. As a vice-president at Mac's Convenience Stores, an Ontario/Western Canada chain owned by the largest convenience-store operator in the country, Alimentation Couche-Tard, he's paid to think that way. He's also lately stepped up a public lobbying effort in Ontario to see that that future comes sooner rather than later.

His timing seems shrewd. Saskatchewan recently relaxed its government grip, announcing it would leave future expansion in private hands. It joins British Columbia and Nova Scotia among provinces with similar private-public liquor-store systems, and Quebec, where beer and wine are sold next to chips and coffee in convenience stores. Alberta did away entirely with government stores 20 years ago.

Perhaps most significantly, in Ontario, the trade group representing most wineries – frustrated with limited liquor-board shelf space for its growing output – last year broke with traditional neutrality on the issue and began publicly beating the drum for private wine shops, a significant move for a powerful industry lobby group. And Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak has thrown his support for grocery-store alcohol sales, with just a minority Liberal government now standing in the way.

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The Globe asked Moher to defend his case for convenience-store sales.

Why the renewed call for wine, beer and spirit sales in private stores now?

It's what our consumers are telling us they want. Sixty-seven per cent of residents in Ontario say they want to see beer and wine in convenience stores.

Is there growing support in the rest of the country where liquor boards still monopolize the markets?

I think that the provinces that do not have a privatized alcohol system in place are looking at the options available. I think they recognize that [privatization] meets the needs of consumers better and it can provide better revenue for the provinces. Most notably, it can reduce the capital spent by provinces on building their own government-run stores.

Liquor boards have long argued that governments need to monopolize retail sales to ensure maximum financial gains from alcohol to fund things like health care and education. True or false?

There is a study that was completed back in spring [by Anindya Sen] out of the University of Waterloo that showed that, if alcohol retailing in Ontario was expanded, it could produce greater profitability and revenues to the province.

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Do you anticipate that increased competition would lead to better prices?

People in Ontario recognize that if they travel into Quebec, they find lower retail [prices]. I can't speculate what the future would be in Ontario, but I can cite a compelling study, again by Professor Sen at the University of Waterloo, where he studied the difference in prices of beer – identical products in Quebec and Ontario – and found that the [higher Ontario prices] allow the Beer Store, which is a foreign-owned [quasi-monopoly] entity in Ontario controlled by three major brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev of Belgium, MolsonCoors of the U.S. and Sapporo of Japan, to collect as much as $700-million annually in incremental profits. Those are incremental profits that leave the province.

Liquor boards have argued that they are uniquely qualified to guard against sales to minors. But stores like Mac's already sell age-restricted products, such as cigarettes and lottery tickets. What's your response?

I'm very disappointed when I hear that comment. In a study completed in 2011, the Beer Stores, LCBO and convenience stores were checked on the sale of age-restricted products, and when it came to that study, the pass rate for the LCBO was in the mid-70s. It was in the low to mid-80s for the Beer Store. Convenience stores across the province actually scored in the low 90s. And I'm very proud to say that Mac's – this is something that we invest heavily in, the training, follow-up in terms of our own external age-testing by qualified shopping companies – posted a 94-per-cent success rate.

What about the late closing hours at convenience stores? Over the years, I've received letters from readers insisting that late-night liquor sales by convenience stores would put the country on a fast track to social ruin.

I think we don't need to venture too far to answer that question. Many of us have had experience travelling to Quebec and I don't think we see the type of behaviour that those people may suggest. I think what it boils down to is that the people in the province of Ontario are simply being asked to be treated like adults.

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What can we realistically expect in terms of product selection if convenience stores outside Quebec were allowed to sell booze? In certain neighbourhoods in the United States, it seems like the selection ranges from Bud Light to Sutter Home White Zinfandel and not much in between. Pretty dismal.

First and foremost, we're not suggesting that the LCBO go away. I think they do a great job when it comes to their Vintages [fine wine] selection and certainly the facilities they build. However, they're not convenient. Given the size of the footprint of convenience stores, we would have a reduced selection. But where I think we have a big opportunity is in more local wines or craft beers. I think we're very fortunate in Ontario that we have some great craft breweries. And our wine areas, whether it's Niagara or Prince Edward County, are becoming world-renowned. So, I think we can celebrate that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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