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'This will help to get the customer inside': Owners applaud new plan for booze in stores

For Bhavin Shah, the province's plan to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores means more than an opportunity to boost customer traffic — it's an opportunity to save the convenience store industry. 

'From the price point of view, it's good for the people,' one convenience store owner says

Bhavin Shah stands outside his convenience store in Mississauga, where he may soon be able to sell alcohol to customers. (Haweya Fadal/CBC)

For Bhavin Shah, the province's plan to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores means more than an opportunity to boost customer traffic — it's an opportunity to save the convenience store industry. 

"Every day … stores [are] closing down in Ontario because of the high rent, lots of red dips and low margins," he told CBC Toronto on Saturday.

"This will help to get the customer inside." 

Shah is the owner of Bobby's Convenience Plus, which is located near Lakeshore Road East and Seneca Avenue in Mississauga.

He's been in the business for 15 years — the same amount of time he's been fighting to see the province change.  

Now that fight seems to have come to an end. 

Bhavin Shah started a petition four years ago, which was signed by many customers, to allow the sale of beer and alcohol in convenience stores. He says he submitted those signatures to Queen's Park. (Haweya Fadal/CBC)
 

Last week, Ontario's finance minister Vic Fedeli announced plans to move ahead with an expansion of beer and wine sales into corner stores, big box stores, and more grocery stores.

Fedeli gave no timeline for the shift, but said it will drive down prices on beer and wine, while ensuring the government doesn't need to privatize Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores to increase availability of products. 

Fedeli says Ontario currently has the lowest density of retail outlets selling beer, wine, cider and spirits in Canada, with less than 3,000 outlets selling alcohol compared to Quebec's approximately 8,000.

"From the price point of view, it's good for the people [of Ontario]," Shah said. "They might get a cheaper price when it comes to competition and it's going to be like open market for everybody." 

And since store owners currently prohibit the sale of lottery tickets and tobacco to minors, Shah said they can do the same for alcohol. 

"We already check IDs," he said. "We are responsible business people." 

'Finally there is a government that understands'

Dave Bryan, CEO of Ontario Convenience Store Association, says he's also thankful for the planned changes. 

"Hats off to this government," Bryan said. "Finally there is a government that understands." 

Bryan says he represents about 6,000 members across the province, and this new system will benefit each of them by promoting a more open, transparent and competitive alcohol retailing market. 

But despite the financial opportunity for store owners, Bryan says the change will allow stores to enhance the service they do best — convenience. 

"Those millions of people that used to go in the foreign-owned beer store now have the opportunity to buy in convenience stores," he said. "And guess what? There's potato chips, there's peanuts, there's newspapers, there's beef jerky."

Instead of having to "stop here, stop there, and then finally get home with your purchases," Bryan says consumers will benefit from a one-stop shop.

'The answer is a clear no' 

But not everyone is relishing the news. 

Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario Safety League (OSL), says the province's plan could have dangerous consequences. 

'Convenience stores have no place in arguing safety,' said Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario Safety League. ( Haweya Fadal/CBC)
 

"Evidence has shown that if you lessen the regulation so you can buy a single alcoholic beverage...it leads to people treating it as another beverage while driving," he told CBC Toronto. 

He says not only will it increase cases of impaired driving, but could transform corner stores into "a hangout for people locally." 

He said while it's worth addressing how to expand the current model to undeserved areas, allowing all corner stores to serve alcohol is too risky.  

"To simply say 'wouldn't it be great to buy beer and alcohol at every convenience store in the province?' The answer is a clear no." 

The current model for buying alcohol is safe and regulated, he added. 

"In my 60 years, I don't know anybody's ever said 'I don't know where I'm going to get beer.'" 

The shelves and coolers of Bobby’s Convenience Plus could soon hold rows of beer and wine. (Keith Burgess/CBC)
 

Despite concerns, Shah says he's already preparing for the booze that could be coming to his store. 

He says he's going to get new coolers and lights, so it makes a bigger "impact" when customers enter the store. 

Some of his customers are also on board. 

"It would be more convenient," Rick Dupont told CBC Toronto. "You just walk down the street.

"I think it's a good idea." 

With files from Haweya Fadal, The Canadian Press

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