Booze sales spike during pandemic, with private stores leading the way
Sales surged at gas stations, convenience stores, while restaurant and bar sector collapsed
The scene outside the Needs Convenience and Liquor Express on Logy Bay Road last Friday was nothing new for Ashley Butler.
Sitting on the trash bin outside her home next door to the store, soaking up the afternoon sun, the resident of Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove said the crowds lined up for booze have brought her a mixture of laughter and frustration.
"I can't even get handy to the store and I'm literally next door," she said, "even just for eggs or milk."
Butler said there have been times when she's arrived home after a nursing shift to find her driveway clogged with strange vehicles, owned, she said, by people waiting to enter the neighbourhood store.
She described the scene as "a little excessive," with "people coming out with cases of alcohol. But that's it. That's Newfoundlanders for ya."
Similar scenes could be found outside most Liquor Express stores since the pandemic swept over the province in mid-March, forcing the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation to stop allowing customers into its two dozen corporate stores.
As a result, customers flocked to the privately owned Liquor Express stores, where they were still able to walk the aisles and pick up their alcohol.
But with the sun shining and the weekend approaching, the 20 or so people lined up outside Needs last Friday were in good spirits.
"It's not like it's raining sideways or snowing. It's fine," joked Nickie Duffett, waiting in line to pick up some weekend refreshments.
Sales almost doubled
Numbers released by the liquor corporation reveal that booze sales increased during the pandemic, with business at gas stations and convenience stores doubling as restaurants and bars closed and corporate stores locked their doors to foot traffic.
Overall, liquor, beer and wine sales in Newfoundland and Labrador jumped by 11 per cent during the months of March, April and May when compared to the same period in 2019.
That's good news for the hard-hit provincial treasury, which routinely receives between $170 and $180 million in dividends from the NLC annually.
That sales bump occurred at the same time as the provincial economy was effectively shuttered because of strict public health measures to help contain the virus, with all non-essential businesses forced to close or dramatically reduce services, and thousands of workers either laid off or doing their jobs from home.
It appears the private sector is what saved the day for the liquor corporation, with sales at the 144 Liquor Express stores throughout the province nearly doubling.
That's because customers were permitted to enter these businesses, though in limited numbers and under strict physical distancing rules.
"Business has been really good," said Jim Fowler, owner of Jim's Quick Stop in Brigus.
Fowler, who has operated an Express store for six year, said he's never been so busy.
People are buying a lot of stuff. - Jim Fowler
"We're happy. Everyone likes to be making some money," he said.
The data also shows that customers dramatically changed their buying habits because of fears related to the COVID-19 virus by making fewer purchases, but spending much more in what's been termed "pantry loading."
The average purchase amount increased by nearly 90 per cent, according to the NLC, and customers also scooped up the larger-size format bottles of liquor and wine and so-called "ready to drink" products.
"Throughout the nine or 10 weeks that we've been in this, they've been absolutely critical," NLC president and CEO Bruce Keating said of the corporation's partners in the private sector.
"I think because of convenience, and because we have 140 of them around the province, they really were able to pick up the extra volume that we weren't able to do through the (corporate) stores."
NLC corporate stores reopening today
The NLC stopped allowing customers into its 23 corporate stores on March 20, but quickly adapted a new business model: online and telephone sales.
Those stores reopened Monday as the province moved to Alert Level 3, the latest step in a cautious and methodical plan to reopen the provincial economy.
That will likely mean a sharp drop in business for the private stores, which often do not carry as wide a selection or offer Air Miles on purchases, but Fowler is happy to have done his part to keep products moving during the crisis.
"I was one of [the] lucky ones to be able to get more people into my store with corporate stores closed," he said.
"I've had people tell me they've always shopped at the (corporate) liquor store. They never thought these Liquor Express stores had as much product, and said, 'We'll continue to come back to your store.'"
Liquor Express stores are located mostly in privately owned gas stations, convenience stores, and in some cases, grocery stores.
Most are located outside the St. John's metropolitan area, and are licensed to sell products from the liquor corporation.
In May 2019, the NLC sold $5.6 million worth of inventory to these express stores. But in the same month this year, sales reached nearly $11 million.
Fowler is not surprised; his business has climbed by about 75 per cent, he said.
"People are buying a lot of stuff," he said.
Corporate store sales down by 30 per cent
Meanwhile, sales at NLC corporate stores plummeted by about 30 per cent in April and March, dropping by more than $3 million in each month.
But the real blow came in what's called the licensee sector, which includes bars and restaurants.
In May 2019, the NLC sold more than $1.1 million in product to bars and restaurants. Last month? Practically zero. But that pattern will change this week, with bars and restaurants now permitted to reopen, albeit with sharply reduced capacity to ensure public safety.
Meanwhile, Keating said the corporation plans to continue online sales from its corporate stores because the service was so popular. However, telephone sales will be discontinued.