Skip to main content

Will shoppers in British Columbia soon be able to purchase their favourite liquor at grocery stores? Changes recommended by the elected official in charge suggest so.Lionel Cironneau/The Associated Press

One-stop shopping for milk, eggs, and beer should be possible in B.C., says the minister responsible for a provincial liquor sales review. John Yap is recommending the province allow alcohol sales in grocery stores, saying he's heeding the wishes of a large majority of British Columbians.

But it was a public consultation that involved only a few thousand people, and Mr. Yap's effort at populism has raised the ire of those already selling liquor – both public and private – who warn the move will mean more sales to minors and smaller profits for government.

"What is the problem they are trying to solve?" asked Ian Baillie, executive director of the provincial Alliance of Beverage Licensees. He said the marginal increase in convenience for customers would come at the expense of variety. If private stores are closed to allow separate mini-boutiques to open up within grocery stores, the shelf space and selection is expected to be smaller.

Mr. Yap is proposing that the number of private retailers in B.C., about 730, remain the same and that prices will not change. The main issue, he said, is how and where people shop.

The government has floated this idea before – Mr. Yap has been talking about the concept for weeks. A decision is not expected until early in the new year, and Mr. Yap's 69 other recommendations remain under wraps. Government officials stressed that it is too early now to say just what the new retail model may be – there will be more policy work before a final decision is made.

But on a week when the provincial government could use a diversion from the angry reaction to hydro-rate increases and dismal employment numbers, he called a news conference Thursday to announce his endorsement for this change.

The Liquor Policy Review website drew 4,364 blog comments and Mr. Yap recorded more than 3,587 private e-mails and letters and 188 stakeholder submissions. From that, he said support for liquor in grocery stores appears to be 75 per cent.

"British Columbians lead busy lives and my final report makes several recommendations that will bring greater convenience to citizens, including moving to a model that will allow shoppers to pick up a bottle of wine or six-pack with their groceries," he said in a statement.

The populist-minded initiative comes after the provincial government rejected calls for more Sunday openings in its own liquor stores. Last year, the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union proposed expanded hours during labour negotiations, arguing it would generate up to $150-million in additional revenues. Most of the province's 200 government liquor stores close on Sundays, while private retailers are allowed to sell seven days a week.

Evan Stewart, a spokesman for the union, said the BCGEU's proposal is still the better choice. "We believe the answer to added convenience for consumers is to have more Sunday openings of publicly owned, government-run liquor stores," he said. "We have the best selection, the best prices and the best record when it comes to preventing sales to minors and people who have already been drinking."

Shane Simpson, the NDP critic for liquor policy, called the announcement "incredibly vague" and said a sample of Twitter comments and blog postings don't amount to real evidence that this is what a majority of British Columbians want.

Ontario is a step ahead of B.C. on the issue of liquor in grocery stores. Last month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne ruled out the sale of beer and wine in corner stores, but a pilot project will set up LCBO outlets in 10 grocery stores.

Mr. Yap said he, too, has rejected the idea of allowing liquor to be sold in convenience stores. His report went to Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton earlier this week. The entire report won't be made public until early in the new year.

Tim Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research, applauded Mr. Yap's call to maintain a moratorium on the number of retail liquor stores in B.C. If the government ends up simply shifting around the location of the same number of stores, "It's hard to know it will make any difference."

However, he did caution that the government should be careful to ensure that grocery stores don't end up discounting alcohol as a means of competing for customers. That was the experience in Britain, he said, with a result that people paid more for food and less for booze.