Changes to B.C. Liquor Stores affecting private sellers

Frustration evident for one local liquor store owner amid confusing changes to government liquor policy.

This spring, government liquor stores expanded their hours as part of a large shift in the province’s liquor laws. As of April 1, the B.C. Liquor Store is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m Monday to Thursday, as well as being open on Sundays and holidays. It’s welcome news for the consumer but a worrying development for private liquor store owners province-wide, including locally.

Greg Swanson has held ownership in the private liquor sales business since 2000 when he opened his downtown Golden store. In his 15 years in the industry, Swanson says he has never had to deal with anything quite like the changes that have happened this spring.

Last year he traded his ownership of the downtown store for a 50 per cent stake in the Mad Trapper store (an ownership stake that he shares with his brother Rodney, with Tim and Jerry Pugera owning the remaining 50 per cent).

Business boomed in the early part of this year, with sales increases averaging 21 per cent from 2014 to 2015, but those increases didn’t last after the government store expanded its hours.

Mad Trapper’s sales were down between 35 and 50 per cent on Sundays and holidays since the expanded hours took effect and between three and five per cent overall.

Compounding the issue for Swanson has been the closure of the pub beside the store, of which he doesn’t hold any ownership. Many locals seemed to initially believe that the store was closed as well, Swanson says.

In response, the Trapper store has dropped its prices pretty well across the board, but the concern remains.

“We’ve dropped our prices three times already in the Trapper since this started,” Swanson said. “We’re at a position where we need to come up with 500,000 more in volume to get the same bottom line because we’ve dropped our net profit that much.”

According to Swanson, the Trapper’s prices are now as low as they can get in order to remain profitable.

“If that’s how we have to deal with it at the present time…we’re doing what we can,” he said.

Private owners like Swanson used to purchase liquor from the B.C. liquor store itself but they now get that stock from large distribution centres out of town with the latest changes. That’s not where the issue lies, says Swanson. Rather, it’s liquor prices that have fluctuated wildly that have private owners frustrated.

“Prices are fluctuating up and down…(in the past) we’d have a little bit of knowledge ahead of time from breweries and distilleries that prices were going up,” Swanson said.

“We’re seeing these changes all the time.”

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald understands where private owners are coming from, believing that there have been some growing pains under the new regulations.

“It’s been a very confusing process with aspects of the pricing,” Macdonald said.

“The information to businesses was very late coming and it also looks like there’s confusion around some of the pricing that people are dealing with. The rollout, actually, has been very confusing.”

In addition to longer hours, private liquor stores used to have the benefit of refrigeration as an advantage of its government-owned competitors. That advantage is no longer as well, as many government stores are now offering refrigerated beer across B.C. That’s not the case at the Golden store, for now.

Still, Swanson is optimistic that the two can co-exist and his store can remain profitable, even under these trying circumstances.

“I think we’ll be able (to co-exist). I think what it is, we’re just going through the break in period and it’s hard on both sides,” he said.

“We know there’s adjustments we’re going to have to make…hopefully business will actually pick up.”