B.C.’s vintage system of liquor distribution leaves sour aftertaste

It is easy to betray your age by recounting how you first bought liquor.

In my case, a) I entered a vast building of impersonal architectural feel, b) researched in a government book the alcohol I wished to buy (Wine-Red-France), c) used a tethered provincially issued pen to fill out an order form with the precise serial number for the bottles and their prices, d) lined up to hand the form to a stern employee behind a counter, and e) waited for him to return from the back, wrap the shameful purchase and charge me for the pleasure.

It was the closest brush with institutional Cold War Eastern Europe that a Canadian could readily experience. I’m surprised I kept drinking. In truth, after all that, I really needed that drink.

On the basis of evident progress I came to conclude that over the years, thankfully, those bureaucratic days were gone. Or at least I thought they were.

I dropped in last week to New District, a venerated Dunbar private outlet, and got an earful from the nimble managers about the not-nimble suppliers. When I phoned later in the week, I was told the previous day was one of the worst shipments ever.

It would not take you long in New District to notice some pockmarks on the shelves, labels with prices missing bottles above to go with them. Even at one of the city’s flourishing stores with a devoted clientele, this feature is not so much a consequence of customer demand as it is of constricted supply.

Thanks, yes, to the government. That Cold War touch is returning, and it’s getting worse. New District can’t get its liquor, in part, because the liquor comes from the very competitor for its consumers.

“It is like Starbucks getting its coffee beans from Tim Hortons,” store manager Isaac Hampson-Thorpe lamented.

Talk to other specialized stores and you will hear much the same refrain: orders for popular brands are unfilled because the government looks after its stores first and foremost, and orders for differentiating brands are taking ages. Cash flow is hurt, as is customer satisfaction.

Martin Farrell, the assistant manager at New District, has in three decades never had such problems filling orders from the government’s distribution branch: “Not just with one product, not just two. Many.”

The supply chain is riddled with inferior accounting of stock and byzantine routes from warehouse to warehouse to get the booze to the right shop.

What used to be a routine shipment of an order within the week is 10 days, often 14.

Large event and wedding orders are now placed more than a month in advance, Christmas orders in September and October. What arrives used to be a pretty full shipment and now tends to be a fraction. It is Amazon Pathetic.

Of this week’s order, Farrell said, “we got about 35% of it.”

A cynic would suggest this is how a competitor with supplier power squeezes someone out, and there is even a government report that fuels that fire.

Earlier this summer, Vancouver lawyer Mark Hicken articulated endemic problems and proposed changes which, cynically speaking, make too much sense for most any government to implement. His Business Technical Advisory Panel (Liquor Policy) Report and Recommendations had a Back to the Future feel to it: fumbled deliveries, phenomenal delays, computerized inventory that said one thing and warehouse inventory that revealed another — and an inherent conflict in government supplying both private and public outlets. All that seemed missing were the paper forms.

Hicken’s reforms would haul the industry into this more sophisticated era, lower prices, and reattract many brands that have given up on B.C.

In an email last week to “valued customers and suppliers,” the distribution branch called conditions of high demand and high summer temperatures “the perfect storm” and pledged it was on the case to fix what ails it within weeks. We shall see.

What remains an open question is whether the political will exists for this government to eschew its constituency and accept private-sector advice on how to govern a public-sector enterprise. Regrettably, I’m betting it won’t fully let go of the tethered pen and that grim guy behind the counter. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.