Sometimes the best way to get what you want is to ask nicely.
A few weeks ago, I had become frustrated with the constant bickering between The Beer Store and the Ontario Convenience Store Association on Twitter. As a columnist, the nature of my beat is editorial rather than journalistic. Still and all, I felt like I had been following the debate over changing the laws regarding beer sales in Ontario. The Ontario Convenience Store Association’s numbers seemed high, and I attributed that to the obvious problem that their polling would be biased in their favour. The Beer Store’s numbers were being bandied about on twitter by their lobby group and were therefore equally suspect.
Since there was no impartial data available, I thought about the best way to obtain some. On the spur of the moment one evening, I sent an email to Forum Research having noticed that they maintain the Forum Poll, which is designed to facilitate responses to just this kind of issue. I didn’t know it at the time, but their President, Lorne Bozinoff was the head of Gallup for six years. As pollster credentials go, you can’t ask for much better.
I worded my email this way:
Over the last little while there has been a great deal of contention in Ontario about opening up the distribution channels for sales of beer through convenience and grocery stores.
The problem is that the both sides of the debate are extremely biased and have each commissioned their own polls and studies which almost certainly contain questions that are leading and designed to produce a specific result.
I am interested in there being an accurate and impartial poll of Ontario citizens to take a measure of the actual feeling in the province about allowing beer sales in a variety of locations like convenience stores, grocery stores or even purpose built individual specialty stores.
I feel as though the will of the public is not being accurately represented and the simplest way to represent it is to ask them.
You’ll note that I’m really only interested in impartial data. I wanted an accurate reading of the public mood on the subject. I worked with Forum Research to ensure that the questions were as neutrally worded as we could manage. Instead of data commissioned by an interested party, we have a snapshot of where the public mood is right now. The fact that the data came in seven hours before I was scheduled to go on TV to talk about The Beer Store’s latest campaign was the sort of karmic bonus that social media consultants only dream about.
The full release is not online yet, but it will be available a little later today.
Let me tell you a little bit about the way that the poll was conducted. It was an IVR telephone poll of 928 Ontarians 18 years of age or older. Some of the questions were pertinent to all Ontarians questioned and some of them were only pertinent to those who purchased beer for consumption at home. The sampling in the survey skews towards older cohorts, which is reasonable given that it was conducted on a Monday night. That doesn’t matter because the data has been statistically weighted to ensure the sample reflects the actual population according to census data.
Of the 928 respondents asked “Do you approve or disapprove of the job The Beer Store does retailing beer in Ontario?” the answer was 52% approve and 28% disapprove with 19% pleading ignorance. That’s ok. Not everyone buys beer. Disapproval is highest in the 18-34 Millennial demographic and males overall at 35%. Support is highest in Northern Ontario at 62%.
65% of the public purchase beer at retail to drink at home. This was the delineating question for the rest of the poll. All remaining questions are relevant only to those who answered yes: 588 Ontario residents.
“How often do you purchase beer?”
The data indicates that people buy beer less frequently as they age. 85% of respondents over the age of 65 buy beer less than once a month. The Millennial and later Gen-X cohorts purchase beer most frequently with 52% and 37% buying it bi-weekly. This should not be a surprise as brewing companies tend to refer to those as their customers’ prime drinking years.
“Are you most likely to purchase beer at The Beer Store or at the LCBO?”
This is a little surprising. Overall, 51% of Ontario residents are most likely to purchase their beer at The Beer Store, with 41% purchasing at the LCBO and 8% splitting the difference. The real separator here is that the Millennials prefer the LCBO by eight points, which is outside the margin of error. The Late Gen-X cohort are approximately equal, with a slight edge given to The Beer Store (45-42-13). In the Greater Toronto Area, the preference is for the LCBO by a single point. In the 416 area code, the preference is for the LCBO by 34%.
“What do you think is the most appropriate kind of store for retailing beer?”
The Beer Store wins this one, but by less of a margin than you might imagine. 30% of respondents named The Beer Store most appropriate. Grocery stores followed at 22% and Convenience stores at 20%. Oddly enough, the late boomer cohort came out in favour of the Grocery Stores and The Beer Store approximately equally. Millennials are in favour of Convenience Stores, but since they pay attention to social media more than the other cohorts that is unsurprising. The political leaning of respondents suggests that Conservatives are more likely to support options other than The Beer Store, while the NDP are 41% in favour of The Beer Store.
“How likely would you be to purchase beer in a convenience store or a grocery store.”
70% of respondents would be likely to purchase beer in a convenience or grocery store if given the option. This is interesting, because I believe the OCSA’s polling indicated 69%. Perhaps the media coverage in the interim has given that a little bump. Northern Ontario is a big outlier here with only 58% in support. Conservatives and Liberals poll out about equally, whereas the NDP are strongly against the idea.
“How likely would you be to purchase beer in a convenience store or a grocery store if it cost about 10% more than at The Beer Store or the LCBO?”
People hate the idea of paying more for beer. 70% of respondents were unlikely to purchase beer in a convenience or grocery store if the price of their product went up by 10%. The Millennial and Gen-X cohorts were most likely to be willing to pay a premium. Geographically, Toronto and the GTA were willing to pay more for convenience as well.
(Editorially, this causes some problems for both sides. Clearly people are willing to purchase beer from a convenience or grocery store, but they’re not willing to pay a 10% premium for the privilege of doing so. This also means that people won’t put up with the ridiculous $20.00 raise in the price of beer that The Beer Store threatens should the laws change. If 70% are against a 10% increase, you had better believe that 100% are going to be against a 50% increase. Might be time to retire that talking point, fellas.)
“Do you approve or disapprove of allowing convenience stores and grocery stores to sell beer in Ontario?”
Overall, the split is 48-44-8 for Approve-Disapprove-Don’t know. Most age groups are actually in favour of this, with respondents 65 and older taking essentially a neutral position. Northern Ontario is strongly against the measure with 55% disapproving. The 416 area code is the exact opposite. Conservative voters are 59% in favor the change, while 55% of the NDP disapprove.
“How would you rate The Beer Store for offering excellent products and services?”
Overall, this breaks down 30-26-18-9 from Excellent-Good-Fair-Poor. The group with the highest opinion of The Beer Store are the 45-54 year old Gen-X cohort. Millennials and the younger Gen-X cohort show the lowest ratings at. Essentially, the younger the cohort, the lower the score on this one.
“As far as you know, is The Beer Store Canadian-owned or Foreign-owned?”
This broke down to 62% Canadian Owned/22% Foreign Owned. The Millennials are best informed on this issue, with 27% correctly identifying The Beer Store as foreign owned. When you consider that the OCSA’s polling from December indicated that only 13% knew about the foreign ownership, it becomes clear that the media coverage of the issue is slowly educating the population.
Those are the results, and I have tried not to editorialize overmuch while I gave them to you.
Here’s what I see: The 18-45 demographics, which are the ones who buy the most beer by volume and whom all the marketing is targeted at are staying away in droves. If you are older than 45, you grew up with The Beer Store and it may just be force of habit that influences continued purchasing there. The polling is likely accurate and it indicates that as time has gone on, beer drinkers who are entering the marketplace are more and more likely to shop for their beer at the LCBO. The 18-34 demographic vastly prefer it. There’s no reason to believe that consumers becoming legal over the next ten years will see this demographic trend reverse. Older consumers will leave the market as they do.
It might be a stretch to suggest that people over 45 shop at The Beer Store because they grew up with it and are used to it. However, if that assumption is correct then the future looks pretty bleak for The Beer Store because new consumers are going to gravitate to the LCBO, which has many of the beers The Beer Store stocks and is already going about putting their LCBO Express stores into grocery stores.
There’s some good news and bad news here, depending on who you are.
If you’re the Conservative party and Wynne gets ousted, this might actually become a wedge election issue. It’s one with a relatively safe landing, since about half the population is in favour of the change and 70% of the population would take advantage of the changes. (Personally, I think that just about every other issue should come before this one. Don’t vote based on this. If you like the rest of the package and this a bonus, then maybe it could be your deciding factor. Chances are we’re very different people.)
If you’re The Beer Store, and your sole mission statement is to sell beer, you’ve somehow lost the confidence of the consumer over the last 25 years. Younger demographic cohorts, the prized ones who provide most of the volume, prefer to shop for beer elsewhere. That is a really bad sign, but the worst part of that problem is that this is the age of social media and the Millennials who are not shopping at your stores control the tone of the online discourse. You are trying to dissuade them from pushing for change by handling a twitter account when you’ve already lost the demographic. Strategically, you’re continuing the discourse to your detriment because the longer it is in front of the public, the more people know you’re foreign owned and the less likely new consumers are to shop with you.
Because of the demography we see in this snapshot, this issue is not going away. Sales through The Beer Store are suffering. At some point, change is going to happen. It might be closer than we think. If The Beer Store’s polling is aware of how negatively higher prices poll and they are using that as their anchor, that’s a fairly desperate move because it’s easily disproved. They’re issuing it as a threat to their own consumers and that may be because their backs are against the wall.
Also, if this poll has revealed anything to me, it is that Northern Ontario is really under-served. Fortunately, we’ve got craft breweries in Kenora, Sudbury and Thunder Bay now, so maybe they will get some exposure over the summer.