St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

The Beer Boutique

Yesterday, I went to the launch of The Beer Store’s new venture: The Beer Boutique.

See? It's pretty ok. Plus, later, I ate some of that cheese.

One of the criticisms that I keep hearing about The Beer Store is that it is something of a monolithic entity. As one of two corporate entities that is allowed to sell beer in Ontario (I am excluding brewpubs here for the simple reason that comparatively speaking their output is Lilliputian) it operates under a privileged position. For a very long time, there was no competition to speak of for The Beer Store. The difference between the LCBO and The Beer Store in terms of mandate is that the profits from the LCBO go to the provincial government and the profits from The Beer Store go to the owners of The Beer Store: Molson, Labatt, and to a far lesser extent, Sapporo.

If you’re the LCBO, it therefore makes sense to appeal to consumers. If remodeling the stores, as they did during the 1990’s, can increase profitability, it makes sense to do so. It increases the revenue for the province; People like to shop in places that cater to their tastes. If you have stands with samples and a wide selection of products and a pleasant atmosphere, consumers will spend more. Never mind for the moment that consumers don’t have a choice but to shop with them. They’re the only game in town for Liquor. Aside from The Wine Rack, they hold a monopoly on wine. The point that I’m making is that people will spend more if they like the store that they’re in. More sales equal increased provincial revenue. A remodel is a good long term investment, since the mandate is to create profit for government.

If you’re The Beer Store, on the other hand, and you control 85% of beer sales in the province, you don’t really need to do that. There are a number of protective systems in place. First of all, by its nature, beer is sort of unwieldy. The LCBO simply doesn’t have room to stock two-fours of beer. Or cases of twelve, for that matter. The Beer Store, for a very long time had the privileged position of being the only place you could buy beer in quantity. It still does, as a matter of fact. You had no choice but to shop with them, and if the store was dingy and grey or depressing and smelled like spilt beer because of the bottle return and you had to pick out which beer you wanted from a wall of empty bottles only to have them whisked out of the back room on a system of rollers, well… tough. In fact, the outsides of many locations are still dated from the last branding change.

Eventually, what I suspect must have happened was that the market changed sufficiently for the LCBO to take beer seriously. Since The Beer Store had a monopoly on volume sales due to space restrictions in the stores, the LCBO went after single bottles and high quality products. You can find some kind of craft beer in just about any LCBO south of Sudbury at this point. I’m told, for instance, that the Sharbot Lake selection is surprisingly robust.

The LCBO must have made enough of a dent in The Beer Store’s market to make them rethink their policy of having stores that sort of make you feel as though you’re waiting in the passport office (Passport to flavour country, amirite?!?!).

So you’ve got The Beer Boutique.

It’s a large box store with walls filled with cold beer. There are large concave shelves to show off a number of the products. There’s a large oak table as the room’s centerpiece, which is lit by hanging piping in which sections are replaced by fluorescent tubes. The floors are sort of a diagonal wooden parquet and the walls are brick faced. It comes in at 2700 square feet. They’ve chosen basic black for most of the accent pieces and those sections are periodically interspersed by monitors showing information about beer. It’s nice.

It reminded me of a Couche-Tard (Mac’s Milk) that I had been in in Outremont last week and I said as much during the event. I mean, it was a particularly nice Mac’s Milk. What I essentially mean by that is not that it’s low rent. The thing is that it’s obviously a scalable, reproducible design. You could work with the design in that store and send it just about anywhere. It would play equally well in Ottawa or London or Kingston.

The people I was talking to (some pretty high ranking Molson and Labatt guys and one Beer Store employee whose name I didn’t catch, but who reminded me of the Spiderman villain The Kingpin, mostly because of the baldness and pretty darn swanky suit and silk pocket square) seemed a little crestfallen that I thought that. But that’s surely the point of the thing, isn’t it? You want it to be repeatable. They seemed to be under the impression that they had created something unique and interesting, when in reality, that’s not what you want.

Look, if you’re in a Bed, Bath and Beyond, you know it. There’s branding everywhere. Usually, the layouts are similar to the point where you can find a terrycloth robe, a rattan hamper and a Shake Weight blindfolded. It’s a measure of corporate branding. It’s the bare minimum for a successful chain.

It’s just that these guys are new at this, so my comments may have seemed unnecessarily churlish, when in reality, I’m simply thinking ahead.

The thing that surprises me about it is the pervasive impression that I got that the store was an experiment. “We’ll see how it does,” said The Kingpin. I wondered if it would work with the Liberty Village demographic, being as how it’s a mix of young professionals and some people of artistic temperament. No one can really say. It seems like hip young people might be a hard market to sway. I wonder if they’ve done that on purpose to try it out in an area with a difficult population to project. That would be a good idea. They might surpass their expectations in other markets based on that data.

Understand, though, it is pretty much a window dressing. The products are the same. The policies are the same. The new design throws the size of the craft beer section into pretty sharp relief. It’s half the size (maybe two thirds the size) of the buck-a-beer wall. It showcases just about every brand they have. I had no idea until yesterday that we had Keystone Light in Canada. I could have lived without that knowledge.

This is the Craft Beer section. Nary a two-four in sight.

On balance, it’s a nice store, but I don’t understand the timidity. They shouldn’t call it The Beer Boutique. The concept is a fallacy, since the concept includes no additional boutique products. It’s just a nicer store. What they should do is invest in renovating all of The Beer Stores to make them like this. Sure, the initial outlay would be some gargantuan sum of money, but it might make people want to shop there. It worked for their competition.

5 Thoughts on “The Beer Boutique

  1. I’ve seen craft brewers complain before that The Beer Store has specifically designed their stores in a way as to take away their competitive advantage from flashier packaging. The craft brews can’t compete on name-recognition, so they wish they could at least grab your eye in-store. That’s obviously impossible when you’re looking at a wall of bland labels.

  2. I scammed a ticket to the Monday night pre-party. Wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed – sure, nice bright lights are fine, but nothing particularly exciting by way of selection. I think Canadian customers are used to piss-poor retail offerings though (for example, the Beer Store, which I consider the 9th circle of hell, and refuse to set foot in.) This was better – but exciting? Not really.

    • It’s kind of an interesting study. As you point out, The Beer Store previously was a downright unpleasant shopping experience. If the chain had existed in a free market, showing that kind of contempt for their customers would have significantly reduced their market share. Since they didn’t have to worry about that, they now find themselves in the position of having to compete with the LCBO. It’s sort of their own fault for taking the public for granted.

  3. Pingback: Things you need to know today - Beer News - June 15th 2011 - TorontoBeerBlog.com

  4. Chris Storey on June 21, 2011 at 7:54 am said:

    I wish I was there to talk to the Molson/Labatt Kingpins. I would of told them that I make my own beer to save money, but I mainly make my own beer to never, ever have to step foot in any Beer Store. After buying beer in the US, this new Beer Boutique store is a lame, pathetic example of what a monopoly on beer sales does in the province. I hope nobody ever shops there.

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