Don Martin: Time to privatize booze sales
Patrons line up to get into an LCBO outlet as others leave in Mississauga, Ont., Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. (J.P. Moczulski / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Friday, August 10, 2012 7:07AM EDT
Here’s how to drive a Calgarian into a retail rage while visiting in an Ontario city like Ottawa.
If they’re downtown after 6 p.m. on a weekday, ask them to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner.
They’ll wander. And wander some more, scouring streets and retail malls seeking one of the THREE Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlets in the core of the nation’s capital. And IF they finally locate one, most weekdays they’ll rattle a locked door and curse at having stepped into the dark ages of alcohol retailing.
Consider the statistics as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is again pressured by Official Opposition Leader Tim Hudak to end what amounts to a government-run booze sales prohibition after dark.
Number of LCBO outlets in metropolitan Ottawa, with 1.2 million residents: 27.
Number of liquor retailers in the similar-sized metropolitan Calgary: 282.
Latest hour of operation in Ottawa: 10 p.m. (6 p.m. weekdays at many stores).
Last call for booze purchases in many Calgary stores: 2 a.m..
Alberta retailers have access to 17,000 listings. That’s not quite up to the LCBO’s alleged 22,000 selections, but I challenge anyone to find one Ontario outlet in 10 that has more than a few hundred listings on shelves filled with too many mass-produced wine blends or gimmicky labels named after animals.
That’s not all. There’s almost no such thing as a liquor-store-closing holiday in urban Alberta, which will soon celebrate 20 years since the system’s overnight privatization under the Ralph Klein government.
Service is consistently better and the selection generally superior. Want a fine wine store? That’s the store on one corner of an intersection near you. Need a discount wine or beer store? That store’s right across the street.
Competition is fierce which motivates low or discount pricing. Many wine stores have sommeliers on staff to offer advice for the discerning palate. And if they don’t have a particular listing on the shelf, leave a name and a number and most places will custom order it for you.
It’s job-generating, free-enterprise, market-driven retail service at its boozy best.
Now, the LCBO is not without merit. It publishes beautiful food and wine guides. It has expanded its microbrewery beer listings to profile small local operations. And the larger stores with decent Vintage sections boast knowledgeable staff.
But they do nothing under government rule that the private sector couldn’t and wouldn’t deliver if unleashed on the most lucrative liquor retail market in the country.
Privatizing booze sales in Ontario would not, as some might suggest, necessarily encourage more drinking. Alberta finished fourth in per capita consumption among the provinces and territories with Ontario slightly behind in sixth place.
Add it up and PC Leader Tim Hudak is right to push Ontario’s minority government to open up the market.
"Number one, it creates jobs. Number two, it creates an availability that's much more broad. Number three, it stimulates competition, because when you have private people involved, they're going to look at a broader brand base," PC finance critic Peter Shurman told reporters.
If you want foolproof evidence, send a Torontonian visiting Edmonton out to fetch a fine bottle of wine at midnight on a holiday weekend.
Chances are they’ll return in 20 minutes a convert to privatization, clutching a top-notch wine that’s been Sommelier-selected and gift-wrapped.