Why Manitoba liquor stores don't plan to move booze back behind the counter to fight theft

Manitoba's liquor corporation says it's not planning to bring back over-the-counter liquor sales anytime soon — despite suggestions the retro model could curb theft.

Old 'Consumers Distributing' model floated as solution, but MLL says it would be pricey, possibly risky

'Countermen' in a Winnipeg liquor store in an archival photo from the Winnipeg Tribune, published Nov. 11, 1957. Under the model in effect at Manitoba's provincial liquor stores at the time, these employees would fill orders from customers. (Winnipeg Tribune/University of Manitoba Digital Collections)

If you wanted to bring home a bottle of something from a Manitoba liquor store before 1969, you'd first need to grab a pencil and paper.

At the time, alcohol in provincially run liquor stores was under lock and key behind a counter, and accessible only by filling out a form with your order and handing it over to staff.

"I have this very distinct memory of going into this stark room.… There was no adornment, there was no displays, there was no posters. There was definitely no samples," said Gordon Goldsborough, head of the Manitoba Historical Society, recalling a childhood shopping trip with his uncle.

"It could've been in the post office for all you knew."

The old-timey setup is sometimes called the "Consumers Distributing" model, after the now-defunct department store where shoppers made picks from an in-store catalogue and filled out a form to request their purchases.

That approach hasn't been mandated in liquor stores in decades, but it was back in the public eye this week, thanks to a stubbornly high theft rate at Winnipeg liquor stores.

An archival photograph from the Winnipeg Tribune shows the inside of a Winnipeg liquor store, where customers would fill out forms to request products, published in the paper on Aug. 5, 1970. (Winnipeg Tribune/University of Manitoba Digital Collections)

Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries said earlier this week that despite efforts implemented in March to curb the crimes, the rate of thefts and robberies at liquor stores in Winnipeg is "as high as it's ever been."

In a CTV News report earlier this week, Coun. Markus Chambers, vice-chair of the Winnipeg police board, said he's heard from Winnipeggers who want to see booze moved back behind the counter in an effort to stop the thefts.

At a Monday news conference, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries corporate and public affairs director Andrea Kowal dismissed the idea.

"You'd be crazy to think that we haven't looked at every possible option," said Kowal said.

"What's happening with some of these [suggested] solutions is it's just shifting the risk away from our store and our product.… If we close our doors, then maybe they're going to start robbing people in the parking lots."

Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries' Andrea Kowal speaks to media on Monday:

Andrea Kowal of Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries responds to suggestions to curb theft

3 years ago
Duration 1:18
Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries director of corporate and public affairs Andrea Kowal speaks to media about theft at a news conference on Monday, Oct. 28.

Kowal clarified the Crown corporation's position in an emailed statement on Thursday. The statement said any solution to thefts would need to weigh pros and cons, and a switch to over-the-counter booze wouldn't address root causes.

"We did not say that we would never return to the old [Consumers Distributing] or old-style Liquor Mart model," the statement said.

"Converting all 36 Winnipeg Liquor Marts to a behind-the-counter model would require extensive renovations costing millions of dollars per store and years to complete.

"Further, we have serious concerns that this model could shift the risk to customers in the store parking lots or encourage more aggressive and violent hold-up style incidents."

'Rampant self-indulgence'

The province's first "self-serve" or "supermarket style" liquor store — as newspaper coverage called it at the time — opened on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg's St. James-Assiniboia area in March 1969.

A Winnipeg Tribune article in October 1967 lauded the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission (a predecessor of Liquor & Lotteries) for "recognizing a psychological fact of life" — that customers want to see and touch a product before buying it.

The same article included a warning from a Manitoba magistrate who cautioned there would be a "wave of liquor shoplifting."

A customer at the province's first 'self-serve' liquor store in this archival shot from the Winnipeg Tribune, published in the paper on March 8, 1969. (Winnipeg Tribune/University of Manitoba Digital Collections)

Two years later, a Winnipeg Tribune journalist toured the province's first self-serve store, describing his initial inclination toward "rampant self-indulgence" — which he bravely resisted, he said — and criticizing the province's "puritanical legacy" around alcohol regulations, which he said made liquor stores "reek of authoritarianism."

A few months later, Bert Shaw, supervisor of liquor stores, was quoted in the paper saying self-serve "is far and away the most efficient system of merchandising. It's easier for the customer and that reflects in the store's sales."

Goldsborough said historically, alcohol was stigmatized in Canada, including multiple municipal and provincial bans on alcohol in addition to national prohibition from 1918 to 1920. Manitoba's experience with prohibition was longer than the national ban, but shorter than other provinces, lasting from 1916 to 1923.

"When they opened these new supermarket stores … it began normalizing it," he said. "It began making it seem like any other product."

'Brazenness and sophistication' of thefts: Retail Council

John Graham, director of government relations for the Retail Council of Canada, isn't in favour of a switch to over-the-counter alcohol sales, either.

"I think that that's an overreaction and probably a very ineffective way of dealing with this broader societal issue," Graham said.

Customers line up at a newly opened 'self-serve' liquor store in this archival shot from the Winnipeg Tribune, published January 8, 1972. (Winnipeg Tribune/University of Manitoba Digital Collections)

Graham said he's heard increasing concerns from retailers about the growing "brazenness and sophistication" of thefts, and not just at liquor stores.

Products often targeted tend to be those that are easy to grab and sell, such as meats, cheeses, cosmetics and fashion items like runners and coats, he said.

But he said when it comes to liquor thefts, turning back the clock isn't the fix he envisions.

"You put [products] behind a counter and just simply erode that customer experience," he said.

"And ultimately, [you] undermine local growth and really do a disservice to the vast majority of honourable Manitobans."


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that prohibition in Manitoba ended in 1921. In fact, prohibition in Manitoba ended in 1923.
    Nov 05, 2019 9:04 AM CT


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