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Alberta liquor retailers reject idea of expanding alcohol sales to groceries, corner stores

People working in Alberta’s liquor industry say they’re perplexed to see the provincial government consider letting grocers and corner stores sell alcohol in an already privatized retail system.

Dale Nally, the minister responsible for Alberta liquor, gaming and cannabis, acknowledged this month that a panel of MLAs is studying the idea.

“We heard about some innovative things that Ontario is doing, getting liquor on the grocery store shelves,” Nally told reporters last week.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job as the minister if we didn’t take a look at it.”

Nally’s press secretary, Nicky Gocuan, told CBC News in a statement that the government assembled a group to study liquor sales in late December. The panel includes United Conservative Party MLAs Andrew Boitchenko, Brandon Lunty, Scott Sinclair and Chelsae Petrovic.

The move was “driven by media inquiries to government after Ontario proposed a significant change in its retail liquor model,” the statement said.

To date, the panel has consulted with provincial regulator Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC), liquor retailers, grocery and convenience operators, warehouses, and responsible-use advocacy groups Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Alberta Liquor Store Association president Ivonne Martinez said when she submitted feedback to the panel in March, her message was clear.

“Industry is 100 per cent opposed to this,” she said.

New competition from large grocery and convenience chains could be disastrous for many of Alberta’s independently owned liquor stores, Martinez said.

“We wait to hear what the panel is recommending to the minister. But we would say that it would be a catastrophic initiative for our industry for sure,” she said.

“Nobody’s asking for this. So why are we looking at this? Why are we trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?”

Gocuan said Albertans are also being consulted through a public opinion survey. It’s unclear whether the survey already happened, or if it’s rolling out in the future.

No decisions have been made — Nally said he still hasn’t seen the MLA panel’s report on the feedback they gathered, but he expects to say more about the issue soon.

“I always look through the filter of, ‘What do Albertans want?’ And so that would help form my decisions, is what do Albertans want us to do.”

John Graham, government relations director for the Retail Council of Canada’s Prairie region, said various industry groups have weighed in so far.

“It seems to be something that specific types of convenience stores and retailers are more interested in,” he said, adding the impact of any change comes down to the details.

“Ontario is now just starting to expand, more deliberately, the private-sector retailing of liquor, where Alberta has this existing system, where there would be opportunities for some and significant disruption to others if a change was to occur.”

How the Ontario liquor model compares

In December, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that starting in 2026, the government will allow sales of beer, wine, coolers and seltzers at some gas stations, convenience stores and supermarkets.

In that province, the government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is in charge of the majority of retail alcohol sales, while Alberta has had a fully privatized system for more than 30 years.

Martinez said that makes for a completely different conversation on the local impact of changing liquor retail rules.

“We’re the leaders. They should be following us and not vice versa. Ontario is still very much trying to figure out what they want to do with their liquor system,” she said.

Ontario’s move will significantly expand where alcohol can be sold, and will increase access, since LCBO locations often close by 9 p.m., and are usually also closed or operating on limited hours on holidays.

That’s not the case in Alberta, where there are more than 1,500 privately owned liquor stores across the province, and they’re allowed to keep their doors open as late as 2 a.m.

Large grocery retailers, including Loblaws, Sobeys and Costco, already operate their own standalone liquor stores in Alberta, often in the same shopping complexes as their grocery stores.

“You can’t throw a rock without bouncing it off two liquor stores, pretty much in any city or town in Alberta,” said Tom Bell, manager of Edmonton store Sandy Lane Liquor.

“We don’t need more places to go — we already have it. That’s really the goal in Ontario, and it’s not necessary here.”

A man with grey hair and a bushy gray beard stands in front of a fridge full of beer cans.
Tom Bell is the manager of Sandy Lane Liquor in west Edmonton. (Madeline Smith/CBC)

Bell wonders how supermarkets and corner stores would handle the numerous rules in place for liquor retailers, from the prohibition on employing anyone younger than 18 to the requirement of assessing whether customers are intoxicated and potentially refusing service.

Alberta already has some alcohol sales in convenience stores: 11 licensed 7-Eleven stores are allowed to sell beer and wine from a divided restaurant area of the store, and customers can leave with sealed bottles and cans as “takeout.”

Those locations are licensed similarly to restaurants where minors are allowed, while liquor stores have a different AGLC licence that comes with more stringent rules.

A white piece of paper that says "no minors" is posted on a glass door.
People younger than 18 aren’t allowed inside Alberta liquor stores unless they’re accompanied by a parent or guardian. (Madeline Smith/CBC)

Sandy Lane Liquor shares a parking lot with a gas station. Bell said many liquor store owners seek out similar types of locations for customer convenience.

His business has been more sustainable with a more specialized focus on local craft beers and spirits. But he said for owners of smaller stores, the idea of even more competition — potentially from large corporations — is hard to swallow.

“We have people who have invested their lives into this model for the past 30 years,” he said.

“So where is this push coming from? I just don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”

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