Monday, November 30, 2015

Stop trashing the LCBO!

By A.M.

The holidays are just around the corner, which means many different things. Brutal meals with relatives you hate, mountains of credit card debt, and a lot of drinking. For most Canadians, that results in lots and lots of trips to your friendly neighbourhood liquor store. Quebec has its SAQ; Ontario has its LCBO; British Columbia has its Liquor Distribution Branch. To the intense chagrin of most Ontario drinkers (or so it seems), our system of alcohol delivery doesn't appear to be changing in any fundamental way. I want to go a little outside the box here, and give a defense of the publicly-owned liquor store.

Within a ten minute walk from my house, in different directions, there are three LCBO locations. Each store, whether consciously or not, caters to different demographics. One stocks lots of tall cans and coolers (for teenagers, I suppose), one focuses on wine, and the other - a sort of superstore - has loads of craft beer and expensive liquors. This is something that I have yet to see Ontario's private beer monopoly, The Beer Store, attempt to replicate in any noticeable way. And why would it? It's got a lock on the beer market and precisely zero incentive to change.

Whether shopping near my downtown Toronto home, out in the suburbs or deep in rural Ontario, my experience of the LCBO has been overwhelmingly positive. The staff -- while constantly stocking shelves, drawing up orders and handling cashier duties -- is knowledgeable and attentive. Many stores have a resident beer or wine expert on hand -- and sometimes both! Notwithstanding the many times I was refused service for being obviously underage (those were the days!), my feeling is that the LCBO is at least as good at customer service as, say, Best Buy or Loblaw's. Score one for Big Brother.

Much more importantly, the LCBO is one of the last vestiges of reliable, well-paying work in the retail sector. Workers start off there making $14-15/hour, which is unfortunately quite far above Ontario's current minimum wage. This is unheard of in the private retail sector. There are, of course, numerous problems with the LCBO employment practices. Workers can only get permanently hired after working two ‘fixed terms’ at an LCBO store. Those fixed terms are from May-September and mid-November to New Year's. After jumping that hurdle, you can then apply to be considered for a permanent position.

This policy is insanity. It is but one of several nonsensical practices that gets thrown at the wall when ill-informed people trash the LCBO. But really, doesn’t every company engage utterly brutal hiring and firing practices? You can be fired at any point in your first three months of employment at a new job in Ontario, for any reason. It’s almost as if the LCBO is merely reflecting the current neo-liberal trend of precarious work…or maybe it’s simply that the public service is incompetent and we should sell the remnants of it to private interests. That must be it. Privatization, after all, has worked out so extraordinarily well for the average worker over the last thirty years!

And what of public safety? In most discussions surrounding Ontario’s liquor laws, we hear a lot about the rights of consumers to buy alcohol at their local grocery or convenience store. This is not a meaningful goal for any Crown corporation. Simply put, you do not have a ‘right’ to buy alcohol in the same way that you have the right to clean water or nourishing food. Alcohol is a completely extraneous expense, akin to ice cream or a pack of Skittles. For a small and obvious part of the population, it’s a vicious addiction. The LCBO, as part of its social responsibility platform, maintains a commitment to not serve the intoxicated. Absent any sort of meaningful public policy to reduce and eliminate addiction, there is very little the LCBO can do to end the misuse and abuse of alcohol. It does, however, do a pretty good job of keeping alcohol away from the visibly intoxicated. True to form, nearly all commentators and free-market types ignore this vital component of the LCBO.

That and the fact that the LCBO – even considering that it only controls 20% of beer sales – profits the province to the tune of $2 billion annually. This is then used (ostensibly) on social programs, infrastructure and the like.

As for the LCBO's much-discussed retail issues, I can certainly identify a few. First and most obviously are the ridiculous hours of operation. The three LCBO locations nearest to me all have vastly different closing times. Even on a busy Saturday night, like Halloween this year, they were all closed by 10 P.M (and one closed at 8!). It's obviously not the biggest inconvenience in the world to have to buy liquor during the day, at least for me, but many people work weekends and late nights. Especially downtown, many people don't get off of work until after the LCBO closes. Aside from being a stupid idea from the perspective of seeking a profit, this also violates the spirit of the LCBO's emphasis on equity and social access. The LCBO ought to have consistent hours across all of its locations.

It should also have more stores. Liquor is, for better or worse, extremely popular. People in all areas want to drink, and if the LCBO wants to keep Ontarians on its side, it should cater to them more than it does. Many elderly Ontarians, and those with disabilities, cannot walk extended distances to obtain a bottle of wine or a six-pack. I suggest that the LCBO also implement a home delivery system that could be subsidized by its own profits. This could include a Toronto Public Library style "product sharing" program, wherein customers can reserve hard-to-find items at their local store and have it delivered. If it can work for the TPL, it surely can work for another, equally successful public entity!

Minor quibbles aside, Ontarians ought to be very proud of their LCBO. This is a Crown corporation that returns billions of dollars to us every year. It works, however imperfectly, to promote responsible consumption of alcohol. It also provides (relatively) good jobs across the province, with an emphasis on hiring those from marginalized social groups. In these neo-liberal times, we need social ownership more than ever. I encourage you to look past the small convenience of beer and wine in corner stores, and support the LCBO!

A.M. is a writer. 

See also: Why not make Ontario's Beer Store public?

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1 comment:

  1. It should also be noted that, contrary to what would think given their names, the LCBO has a much better selection of interesting beer than the Beer Store does. I can almost always find a new beer that I have never tried at an LCBO. But if I want yet another corporate copycat watered-down lager, then I can always go to the Beer Store -- they always have lots of that stuff. Yuck.