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Privateimportize the SAQ!

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Every few months there’s a wave of talk about privatizing the SAQ. Regardless of your feelings on the subject (I see at least as many downs as ups and suspect the idea is dead in the water because the unions won’t stand for it), if it ever happens, it won’t be soon.

In the meantime, here’s a modest proposal that would go some way toward assuaging those who disparage the monopoly’s purportedly pathetic selection: privateimportize the SAQ.

How would it work?

  • The SAQ would create a new banner – SAQ Caviste, say – that has one or two outlets, along the lines of the Signature banner with its outlets in Montreal and Quebec City.
  • The outlets would specialize in wines, spirits, ciders, beers, sakes and what have you, including Quebec and Canadian products, that are available only through the private import channel.
  • The products could be purchased by the bottle or the case and in person, by phone or by email, as is currently the case for Signature products. Online sales could also be envisioned.
  • Delivery, either free (as it is for Signature products) or for a small charge, could be offered to those unwilling or unable to pick up their purchases at the store. Alternatively, the purchases could be delivered free of charge to designated SAQ outlets for later pick-up.
  • Agencies would still have the option of reserving products for specific customers, of not offering everything they bring in to the general public. Actually, from an agency’s standpoint, it would work much like the current system, with the agency determining the quantities to bring in and having a set window in which to sell them. The main difference would be that agencies would have another sales outlet.

There would be some start-up costs for the SAQ but they could be minimized. For example, the stores wouldn’t have to be located downtown since people would flock to them (wine/beer/spirits geeks, of course, but also increasingly of normal people who enjoy wine/beer/spirits and want to buy private imports they encounter in restaurants or read about in the media). For the same reason, the stores wouldn’t have to be extravagantly decorated (think warehouse). Expenses related to rejiggering the order submission and distribution system would almost certainly be recouped by eliminating the current cumbersome system with its red tape and delays. Also, agencies that currently send customers a separate bill for agency or consultation fees would have to incorporate the fee into the retail price.

Weigh those cons against the pros:

  • The range and number of products readily available to consumers would instantly increase by a quantum leap.
  • Customers wouldn’t have to know how the private import system works and would no longer have to jump through hoops.
  • Customers could buy single bottles. They’d no longer have to buy a case.
  • Customers wouldn’t have to wait a week or two or longer to get their product.
  • Agencies could see their sales increase, could find it easier to move products.
  • Since agencies tend to be faster on their feet than the elephantine SAQ, the offering of products would likely be more responsive to consumer interest and demand.
  • The SAQ would rightly be seen as innovative, responsive and customer service-driven. Pressure on it to privatize would be alleviated.
  • It would boost employee morale, as any number of wine advisors would give their eye teeth to work in such a store.
  • Given that enthusiasm, the quality of service and level of knowledge in the stores would likely be exceptional.
  • Since the stores would be staffed by unionized employees, the unions wouldn’t object (as they would with any of the other privatization/caviste proposals that have been floated).
  • Since a significant percentage of private imports are natural wines, the stores could be set up to provide the cool-temperature storage conditions that those products require and that overheated regular outlets can’t or don’t provide.
  • The outlets currently designated to handle private imports would be relieved of a huge burden. A Sélection manager recently told me that his outlet receives one pallet of private imports – about a fifth or a sixth of the outlet’s total weekly deliveries – every week and, despite the work involved (unloading and storing the cases, processing the orders, letting customers know their orders have arrived, fetching the products when customers come to pick them up, following-up on customers who haven’t picked up their orders, returning unpicked-up products, handling returns of defective products), none of the private import sales appears on the outlet’s balance sheet.

Privateimportize the SAQ!

Written by carswell

June 11, 2013 at 20:04

Posted in Commentary

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