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Province mulls booze sales in grocery, convenience stores

Liquor store owners fear effects on independent retailers

Beer, wine and possibly even spirits may be coming to a convenience store near you, if Premier Danielle Smith gets her way.

Last month Smith expressed support for allowing convenience and grocery stores to sell liquor. The suggestion came shortly after Ontario’s Doug Ford approved the sale of some booze in these stores by 2026.

Smith tasked Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction Minister Dale Nally with investigating the feasibility of the move.

Nally, MLA for Morinville-St. Albert, said Albertans shouldn’t expect to pick up a bottle of Prosecco at 7-Eleven next week.

“It’s early days,” Nally said. “We’re just in the engagement process right now. We're listening to Albertans … some absolutely love the idea, and some want more information.”

Nally couldn’t point to an exact date when he and Smith began discussions around liberating alcohol from the confines of liquor store shelves. But he suggested that the province has been mulling it over since the fall.

“Two months after the last election [Smith] gave me the AGLC file,” he said. “It’s not a secret why we’re giving the AGLC file to the minister responsible for reducing red tape.”

Liquor stores could increase the variety of products they sell if the province allows booze sales at other retail spots, Nally said.

“I think it has to go both ways.”

While many countries regulate the time of day retailers can sell liquor, few are as stringent as most Canadian provinces about where it can be sold.

“We have to acknowledge that prohibition is over,” Nally said. “We first touched on this when we allowed beer to be consumed in parks … some people celebrated it, and other people said, ‘There's going to be rowdiness, and it's going to encourage poor behaviour.’ The fact is, I've had a number of conversations with individuals, and Albertans are very well-behaved. This has not presented any problems in our parks.”

Provinces dictate regulations around the sale of alcohol, and each province varies in its degree of leniency. In Quebec, for example, grocery and convenience stores can sell beer and some wines, whereas Nova Scotia permits sales only at provincially owned liquor stores, private specialty shops and manufacturer retail stores.

In 2021, a handful of 7-Eleven stores in Alberta started selling some alcoholic beverages.

Nally said he has not seen evidence that allowing liquor sales at the 7-Eleven locations affected sales at nearby liquor stores.

The Gazette reached out to the Alberta Liquor Store Association (ALSA) to ask if it has received complaints from alcohol retailers near those 7-Eleven locations. They did not say whether they have received complaints; however, Ivonne Martinez, ALSA's president, said the organization does not support the move. 

"There is no need to allow liquor to be sold where minors have access to these products," Martinez said in an email. "Hundreds of independent liquor businesses have spent thousands setting up their liquor stores, up to $750,000, and by changing the laws it would make for an unfair level playing field ... Alberta has the best system of liquor retailing in the country. Let's keep it that way."

While the jury is still out on whether Albertans are ready to embrace buying alcohol at the same places they get gas and groceries, some liquor stores are not happy with the idea.

“It’s really going to hurt the small, independent stores,” said Karem El-Halaby, owner of Lacombe Park Spirits.

El-Halaby said he has spoken with other liquor store owners who share his feelings.

Many years ago El-Halaby saw large grocery chains drive business away from his parents’ independent grocery store, and he fears the same thing could happen to Lacombe Park Spirits if the province loosens restrictions on which businesses can sell liquor.

“You don't find small grocery stores on the corners anymore,” he said.

In St. Albert, the liquor store industry is already oversaturated, El-Halaby said.

The St. Albert business directory lists 22 liquor stores operating within city limits. “There’s no need to have 20 to 25 stores for a population of around 70,000,” he said.

He’s also not enthusiastic about the idea of stocking food to compete with convenience stores and grocery chains.

"I don't have room to bring in groceries,” he said. “I don't have the refrigeration to bring in groceries.”

“If you can walk into a 7-Eleven, which is across my parking lot, and buy there what you can get here, who’s going to survive — 7-Eleven or Lacombe Park Spirits?”

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