The B.C. government has launched an era of wine sales in grocery stores with a pilot project in a Surrey supermarket touted for being convenient to customers, but criticized as a measure that will doom independent liquor retailers.
The pioneering retailer is a Save-On-Foods supermarket where wine is available from a store within the grocery store and rung up by cashiers who must be 19 and over.
"This is a very exciting moment in B.C. history," said Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, whose ministry is managing the file, during a visit to the store Wednesday. "It's a customer demand, a consumer demand in British Columbia. This is meeting that demand."
But B.C. consumers should not expect to be able to go to a supermarket and leave with wine and groceries in their shopping carts across the province any time soon. Also, only B.C. wine is available at this point as part of a joint project with the B.C. Wine Institute representing most of B.C's wineries.
Darrell Jones, president of the Overwaitea Food Group and Save-On Foods, said he was hard-pressed to offer any timeline for when wine will be available at the company's Urban Fare on Alberni Street in downtown Vancouver – the second supermarket it hopes will sell wine.
"We're ready to go now. The issue is with the city," Mr. Jones said in an interview.
He said Overwaitea and Save-On-Foods, which operates more than 100 supermarkets in B.C., is thankful to be a pioneer, but mindful that retailing rivals are headed this way as well.
"We clearly know there will be competition. There will be plenty of competition," he said.
Miles Prodan, president and CEO of the B.C. Wine Institute, said his organization has 21 licences for similar supermarket operations it plans to enact carefully, promising "selective" decisions about where to open in B.C.
"I can safely say there's not going to be wine on every grocery shelf in B.C.," he said in an interview. "We are not in a huge rush to move into grocery stores – only where it makes sense."
Wednesday's announcement continues the government's aggressive move to reform liquor policy after it said last year it supported 73 recommendations in a report to revamp B.C. liquor laws.
That push has led to Sunday openings and Easter hours at a number of government liquor stores.
A spokesperson for the B.C. Alliance of Beverage Licensees, representing 350 private liquor stores and 600 pubs and bars, said Wednesday's launch could mark the beginning of a seismic industry change in which supermarkets wipe out private liquor retailers.
"Maybe in 20 years, you'll purchase all wine at supermarkets. We think that's a bad shift," said Jeff Guignard, the alliance executive director.
He also said consumers will likely end up demanding wines from outside B.C., challenging shelf space for B.C. wines.
NDP MLA David Eby, the opposition liquor critic, said the government policies will hurt private retailers.
"I don't understand the logic of giving grocery stores this additional benefit when, already, they're large multinational companies that are quite successful at what they do. They don't need an extra hand from the government," he said.
He suggested any British Columbian – "myself included" – would like to buy wine from one store while getting groceries, but the larger question is whether they would support that convenience at the expense of hundreds of jobs.
Mr. Prodan disputed the suggestion that private retailers will be doomed. "They're an important channel for us, but I think there's room in the market for everybody. It's about convenience for the consumer."