The Beer Store Vs The LCBO
If you’re a free-market economist, Ontario has the one of the worst setups for the sale of beer. The LCBO is the government owned for-profit corporation that has no competition but for The Beer Store, which is owned primarily by the big breweries of Ontario.
Historically, the LCBO focused on wine and spirits, while the Beer Store sold its eponymous product. Both enjoy a relative monopoly for those products, although recently the LCBO has been impinging on The Beer Store’s turf, selling beers and coolers in their locations.
With these pretty limited options, where does one go to buy beer? It turns out, it’s all about extremes.
The Beer Store
As many are likely know, The Beer Store is an almost archaic shopping experience, barely evolved from when it functioned solely as a warehouse. In many locations, there’s no product on display but for the wall of beer logos. There is no description, no ability to see the product, and with the hundreds of tiny logos, it’s nearly impossible for those unfamiliar with beer, or those with pickier palates looking to try something new. When placing an order, you pay for it and wait for it to slide down the conveyor belt. While there aren’t as many locations as Starbucks, there are plenty in Ontario and there’s one almost always nearby (440 total, in fact).
Pro – A ton of selection. If you know exactly what you want, this is the perfect quick and efficient shopping experience. You don’t have to worry about all the browsers uncertain of what to get.
Con – If you’re not buying the Top 10 beers (as listed on the website), you might have some trouble finding the beer you want. For example, asking for the “light beer with the blue mountains on the bottle” will elicit an instant response of Coors Light. If, as one person mentioned to me, you ask for a beer they rarely sell you’ll get a tilt head and a huh. This is a catalogue store, the expertise is likely to be low but this isn’t a general rule. Sometimes you’ll get the right person behind the counter that is as big of a beer fanatic as you are.
Craft brew friendly? – The Ontario Craft Brewers continue to push for their own beer store where they can sell their products. Anyone can be listed at The Beer Store - the problem is there’s a listing cost for the sku number and then the microbrewery needs to pay a ‘per store’ fee for each store where they want their beer sold. The Beer Store is a break-even business, but the Ontario Craft Brewers continue to say that the cost of doing business is too expensive. Ontario Craft Brewers even offered to buy shares of The Beer Store, but the controlling companies have refused to sell.
Although the LCBO’s primary business is wine and hard liquor, they’ve been competing against The Beer Store quite heavily over the last few decades. The LCBO is a government owned for-profit company that also has the responsibility of setting provincial prices for alcohol. Any imported beer, even if sold at The Beer Store, must be approved by the LCBO.
Pro – The browsing experience. You get to look through the shelves and read the wording on the package before you buy. There’s also knowledgeable staff around to help, should you require it. While the LCBO can be criticized for the politics around its existence, the enjoyed monopoly and the sometimes high price of alcohol allow for fantastic store locations, a clean shopping experience, and staff that’s paid to know about their product.
Con – Selection is generally rather low. Most of the square footage of a LCBO store is dedicated to wine or spirits, leaving only a relatively small corner for their beer selection, meaning that there’s a limited number of skus, and only the strong survive. Even though the LCBO is government owned, it’s still all about revenue. If a beverage isn’t meeting its requirements it’ll be taken off the shelf. That’s a contrast with The Beer Store which will keep a beer stocked so long as the brewer is paying the listing fee.
Craft brew friendly? – Depends on the sales. A good selling craft beer can stay on the shelves, but if you aren’t selling, expect to be delisted. But some stores now have Ontario Craft Beer signage making it easier for those unfamiliar with the brands to find a locally produced microbrew. The LCBO has also held in store tastings and promotions highlighting the Ontario Craft Brewers.
Liberty Village Beer Boutique
Owned by The Beer Store, the Beer Boutique is a new concept that combines The Beer Store selection with the shopping experience of the LCBO. The product selection doesn’t stretch outside of what already exists in The Beer Stores’ network, but you’re more likely to find knowledgeable staff and be able to touch and look at that six-pack of Ontario Craft Beer before purchasing it. This Beer Boutique is in response to the LCBO gaining market share on the total beer sold in Ontario. If it succeeds, expect to see more Beer Boutiques throughout Ontario. This does show that even within the monopolies of Ontario beer sales, the little bit of overlap between two competing bodies can benefit the customer.
Pro – Browsing experience, knowledgeable staff. Like the LCBO, they provide education on beer but they’re only focused on beer, making it an overall better experience for beer drinkers.
Con – Selection of craft beers is still limited, though said to be improving. It’s perhaps too early to judge. Some remain hopeful this will be a better shopping experience with more of a craft beer selection.
Craft brew friendly? – Same as The Beer Store, but with this focus on a browsing experience perhaps craft brewers will benefit by highlighting their products here.