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A Beer Store location in Oakville, Ont., shows the new branding and updated store style, with a walk in beer fridge, exposed wood and other new shopper-friendly features. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A Beer Store location in Oakville, Ont., shows the new branding and updated store style, with a walk in beer fridge, exposed wood and other new shopper-friendly features. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)


Beer spruces up in battle for market share Add to ...

The smell of stale beer is still there; the sometimes unavoidable by-product of a vast recycling program that leaves it to consumers to wash their empties. But olfactory suggestions aside, this is a Beer Store refreshed.

Gone is the joyless, industrial store where shoppers were forced to select their orders from a big plastic board to be hauled out from a dank warehouse. Rather, wall-mounted Samsung tablets can be used to browse, and an added cooler, framed in exposed wood, lets beer drinkers actually touch the product. Upbeat music plays and amber lampshades hang above the cash registers, manned by staff in uniforms labelled “Beer enthusiast” or “Beer champion,” newly trained to suggest flavours and food pairings. In a Facebook-style re-brand, the “The” is gone. It is now, simply, Beer Store.

The test project by Ontario’s beer oligopoly – most sales are controlled by three large multinational brewers – responds to years of customer frustration, and has been rolled out in four Greater Toronto stores, just in time for the May long weekend. In some pilot locations, a wall has been erected separating the returns area, and eliminating the smell altogether. “We’re trying to enhance the customer experience,” said Andrea Randolph, vice-president of retail at Beer Store.

It’s just one example of how liquor retailers across the country – both private and government-run – are attempting to make shopping for beer more pleasant. While beer is still the dominant alcoholic beverage, its market share has been slipping. Sales peaked in 1993, when it held 53 per cent of the alcoholic beverage market, while wine drew 18 per cent. By 2012, beer’s market share was down to 44 per cent, and wine sales grew to 31 per cent of sales.

As the $20.9-billion alcoholic beverage market shifts, beer makers have launched a slew of new products to appeal to consumers’ desire for variety. Now, it seems, attention has turned to the places where beer is sold.

The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch has over the last five years introduced 22 “signature stores” offering “enhanced presentation and broader selection,” and will roll out more changes over the next year and a half.

In Manitoba, where there is a mix of public and private liquor retailers, the government opened four Liquor Mart Express mini-stores, with the goal “to provide greater customer service and refresh Manitoba’s retail model.”

The Prince Edward Island Liquor Control Commission recently announced a re-branding of its government-run liquor stores, with a new name: “PEI Liquor.” It is also changing its colour scheme, shelving layout and design of its stores.

The Société des alcools du Québec, which does not own its retail outlets, invests roughly $13-million per year on improving its look, refreshing its stores each time a lease comes up.

And the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp., which renovated the front of its stores years ago, has been working to overhaul the “cold zone” back room where customers can browse, to make it look less like a warehouse, with nicer-looking signs and more educational elements.

Liquor retailers have no choice but to shift their shopping environments, and marketing, said NSLC spokesman Mike Maloney. He looks to grocery stores, with better lighting, wider aisles and attractive displays. “The grocery chains have changed dramatically, they’ve upped their game … We’re playing catch-up.”

While the Ontario Beer Store’s newly renovated locations have generated some buzz, its business model, which has its roots in the post-Prohibition late 1920s, remains unchanged. Perhaps because of its staid image and slow pace of change, many Ontarians mistake the Beer Store for a government-run entity – the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s shabby cousin. In fact, it is a near monopoly, controlled by multinationals: Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. (owned by Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev SA), Molson Coors Brewing Co. (merged with Coors and based in Denver and Montreal), and Sleeman Breweries Ltd. (owned by Japan-based Sapporo Breweries Ltd.)

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