PR battle heats up in Ontario over c-store beer sales

Beer Store risks public backlash in row with convenience stores The Beer Store has mounted a PR assault on the Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA), which has long been lobbying the provincial government to allow the sale of wine, beer and liquor in convenience stores. But The Beer Store’s aggressive tactics, which played out bizarrely […]

Beer Store risks public backlash in row with convenience stores

The Beer Store has mounted a PR assault on the Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA), which has long been lobbying the provincial government to allow the sale of wine, beer and liquor in convenience stores. But The Beer Store’s aggressive tactics, which played out bizarrely over the news wire and in the media earlier this month, may end up backfiring.

The Beer Store - owned by Molson Coors, Sapporo and Anheuser-Busch InBev - is fighting to maintain its dominance in Ontario's lucrative beer retail market

It all started when The Beer Store released a white paper on Feb. 10, claiming that allowing c-stores to sell beer would hike the price of a 24-case by an average of $10.

The OCSA quickly fired back with its own release, refuting the study and emphasizing The Beer Store’s foreign ownership. (The Beer Store is owned by U.S.-based Molson Coors, Sapporo of Japan and Anheuser-Busch InBev of Belgium.)

Another press release from The Beer Store followed, with a quote from Dave Bryans, president and CEO of OCSA, who told the Toronto Sun his organization “has never advocated that we were going to offer cheap beer to anybody.” The Beer Store claimed the group “flip-flopped” from its earlier position that prices would go down (though no OCSA statements to this effect were offered).

Yet another release on Feb. 11 quoted Bryans again and included a link to his Global TV News “price hike admission.” The release also promoted OntarioBeerFacts.ca, a new website that spells out all the “negative consequences” c-store alcohol sales will have for Ontario, including higher prices and increased sales to minors.

“First of all, it strikes me as extremely political: all of the tactics that you see on display here are the sorts of things you typically associate with election war-room politics, where you have claims and counter-claims,” said Daniel Tisch, president of Toronto-based Argyle Communications. “This level of aggression can sometimes look like desperation, like an industry or an organization that’s working hard to protect its privilege, which of course, doesn’t always line up with what’s good for the consumer.”

But The Beer Store said it’s important to get its side of the story out there, as the OSCA is lobbying hard for reform. Though Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn has said the government has no plans to allow c-stores to sell booze, there will likely be an election in the spring, which could put the issue on the table.

“They’re out there and saying a lot of things that we take significant issue with,” said Jeff Newton, president of Canada’s National Brewers, the lobby group for The Beer Store. “We felt it was important to engage in the debate with the intent of trying to get some facts and information out there. If and when this issue has more interest amongst the political parties, we want to make sure that people… can make informed decisions and they’re not just getting information from one side.”

However, Tisch said being this vocal may be risky. “What used to be a well-kept secret, which is now more widely known, is that The Beer Store is owned and controlled by foreign-owned brewers,” he said. “It doesn’t have the halo of public ownership that the LCBO has, nor the atmosphere and environment that people like and cherish about the LCBO.”

“So I think drawing more attention to the issue in the end could hurt them more than it helps, even if they succeed in countering some of the convenience store association’s claims… They’re focused on winning the battle, but they’re more likely to lose the war.”

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