Since it is December, we are in that phase of the year when people talk idly about abolishing The Beer Store. You’ve got Martin Regg Cohn over at The Star doing a reprise of last year’s column. It’s a good party piece, but it’s unlikely to accomplish anything. Even Anindya Sen who released a number of studies and who is probably a very good economist seems not to have made an impact, although this might be due to the ease of dismissing a commissioned study.
I’ve taken a slightly different tack on the issue this year: I’ve actually talked to The Beer Store in an attempt to understand the problem. If you want to effect change, you’ve got to understand the motivations of all of the parties involved. It does you no good to vilify The Beer Store out of hand. It is not run by Darth Vader. If it were, the stores would feature more unsafe catwalks over giant pits.
Let’s put aside for a moment the shopping experience which has been famously awful. Let’s put aside the rhetoric that it is an outmoded eastern bloc style of organization.
Let’s instead have a look at the functions it actually performs.
The shopping experience tends to blind people to the fact that The Beer Store is actually a retail and distribution organization. Despite the insistence of studies to the contrary, it operates at a cost recovery basis. That is to say that it does not turn a profit. It makes enough money to pay for itself.
Please understand this: It does not make a profit. Intentionally. Anyone who is telling you different is flat out wrong.
This is not to say that the ideas of those people who are telling you it makes a profit are wrong. They’re absolutely right. If it were a retailer in a purely capitalist system, The Beer Store would be raking it in hand over fist. Anindya Sen claims that there are approximately 700 million dollars worth of incremental profits unaccounted for in The Beer Store’s operation. Let us account for them.
The Beer Store has more than 440 locations operating all over Ontario. Sure, there are a whole bunch in Toronto, but there’s one in Espanola and Wawa and Azilda and Coboconk. They’re everywhere. This is the retail component, which is customer facing.
Consider all of the stuff involved that does not face the customer.
There are the licensee sales. When you see the Brewer’s Retail truck out and about delivering kegs, that’s also The Beer Store. They have an online ordering system for licensees and people to staff it. They’ve got people driving those trucks. They’ve got administrative staff supervising those sets of employees.
There are the logistics of distribution to contend with. You can’t sell beer in Wawa and Coboconk unless you get the beer there in the first place. The Beer Store has six separate distribution centres which service the province. This means that beer intended for stores or licensees need only be shipped as far as the nearest distribution centre and The Beer Store will take care of the rest. Think of the logistical support needed for this.
There’s the bottle recycling program. I recall reading somewhere that your typical ISB bottle can be re-used between 18 and 20 times. The Beer Store controls the recycling of these bottles within Ontario. I forget exactly what the current consensus is on recycling beer bottles. It seems to change depending on the cost of cartage or freight. Anyway, it employs a number of people and The Beer Store has a really significant hand in it.
There’s also the Draught Services division which handles installations for licensees and line cleaning equipment.
What The Beer Store actually does is outsource services for the three extremely large companies that own it. I suspect that the only reason Sapporo is allowed 4% ownership is to keep it from becoming a subsidiary company of either Molson Coors or AB InBev based on shifts in market share.
Because these companies have contrived over several decades to own The Beer Store, they are able to outsource all of the following: Customer facing sales, licensee facing sales, draught equipment sales, distribution of their product to all corners of the province of Ontario, the ownership and maintenance of the physical buildings, the ownership and maintenance of the fleet of trucks required, the recycling of beer bottles for re-use predominantly by the owners of The Beer Store, the staffing and administration of the entire concern, insurance liability for the entire concern and the pensions of the entire concern.
Jeff Newton, a spokesperson for The Beer Store (and a dashed accommodating fellow), pointed out to me that smaller breweries could also take advantage of these benefits. The scale of the thing is prohibitive if we’re all going to be honest. There’s an initial investment involved that requires a lot of capital.
To be fair, I should point out the other thing that I learned. The LCBO has a markup which makes them a profit. Selling beer in The Beer Store seems to (once you recoup the initial investment) provide a greater profit margin for breweries. Sure, it’s a long term strategy, but it might work out eventually.
What all of this means is that all of the service fees that go into selling beer at The Beer Store essentially go into a pool which funds all of the above listed activities. There is a sliding scale of fees to have your products listed if you’re a smaller brewer, which is something of a concession. However, you’re still paying into a system which disproportionately benefits the large brewers in a substantial way.
The Beer Store doesn’t need to make a profit, which is why it doesn’t. Making a profit would be gilding the lily. The real benefit here is that the large brewers don’t have to perform many of the tasks I listed above. The Beer Store handles those for them. It also brings a certain amount of stability to the cold war like détente between AB InBev and Molson Coors in Ontario since they both benefit massively from their ownership and the status quo seems to be working.
This is what you’re contending with when you talk about privatization, incidentally. You’ve got a massively organized logistics and distribution company whose parent companies have some incredibly deep pockets and have contrived to create an oligopoly out of something intended to be a public service over the course of several decades. If you want privatization, you need a governmental figure willing to think further ahead than the next election.
Whether you like it or not the current structure of The Beer Store is absolutely brilliant. It’s actually genius. Just because it tends not benefit the consumer doesn’t change that.