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Posts Tagged ‘SAQ

Rumour confirmed

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For those of us outside the SAQ, trying to understand the machinations, motives and plans of the company’s decision-makers is like being an inmate in Plato’s cave. Sitting with our backs to the entrance and forced to face a wall, we attempt to divine what is happening beyond the cave by studying the shadows the actors cast upon the wall.

For several years now, the shadows have seemed to indicate that the SAQ was preparing to make a major shift in its sales model: to begin selling private imports directly to consumers (instead of forcing them to pass through an agency) and to stop requiring that all private imports be purchased by the case.

Though rumours to that effect abounded, concrete signs were few. One of the earliest was the announcement that the SAQ intended to double its offer from the current 12,000 or so products to somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000 products in the next few years. How could it quickly and cost-effectively pull that off without massively expanding its store network, sales force and supply chain? Selling private imports online seemed the only answer. That in the neighbourhood of 10,000 to 15,000 products are currently available through the private import channel – exactly the number needed to pull off the trick – lent credence to the hypothesis.

Other signs? The monopoly’s increasing focus on online sales, including its recent introduction of products available only on The roll-out of the Click, Purchase, Pick Up service. Factoids like the Montreal Distribution Centre’s reportedly setting aside a large area for an unspecified purpose.

In an interview with Bill Zacharkiw in today’s Gazette, Alain Brunet, the SAQ’s president and CEO, finally puts the rumours to rest (emphasis mine):

BZ: Now we are seeing a complete fragmentation of the market. Go to any wine bar or fine restaurant, and the vast majority of wines on the list aren’t even available at the SAQ, only as private imports. I don’t even know most of these wines.

AB: The private import market has really developed over the past five to 10 years. Over 70 per cent of the sales of private import wines are restaurants.

BZ: But that’s mostly due to restrictive policies that allow these wines to be purchased only by the case, which limits the individual consumer access to all this choice.

AB: We know this is an important trend and it’s over a $125-million business. We aren’t trying to slow it down; in fact, we want to accelerate it. What we have lacked is an effective way to distribute all these niche products. Now we have the technology, and within two years our goal is to have all wines available by the bottle on

Insiders I’ve spoken to say the target launch date is the fall of 2018.

Agents I’ve spoken to don’t appear particularly excited about the concept. Then again, like the rest of us, they’ve been kept in the dark and have little idea of how it might work. That being said, most feel it is unlikely that every product in the private import channel will be available through

This change and the overall push toward online sales will probably have major implications for the SAQ’s store network. Look for some thoughts on that in a future post.

Written by carswell

February 25, 2017 at 11:23

Posted in Commentary, News

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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?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by carswell

June 11, 2013 at 20:04

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The case of the missing Noilly Prat

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Ask people to name the different types of vermouth and most will probably answer red and white. Actually, vermouths are divided into three main styles: Provençal, Savoie and Italian. (In fact, it’s even more complicated than that; see here for details.)

The first of these styles, the Provençal, is generally considered the most complex. And the last remaining representative of the style is Noilly Prat.

Straw-coloured Noilly Prat Original Dry is arguably the quintessential ingredient for a classic dry martini. Many martini recipes specify it by name while leaving the choice of gin up to the mixologist. As the New American Bartender’s Handbook says, “No martini should be made without a splash of this.” What’s more, Noilly Prat Original Dry is a key ingredient in several Provençal dishes, especially fish dishes. T. S. Eliot even named one of his cats after it. The lighter, more delicate Savoie vermouths can be delicious but they lack Noilly Prat’s heft. Italian dry vermouths tend to be sweeter, heavier and less refined. The bottom line: Noilly Prat is both an icon and an essential addition to any self-respecting liquor cabinet.

And it isn’t available in Quebec or Ontario.

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Written by carswell

May 25, 2013 at 12:28

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The Private Import FAQ

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You’re dining in a restaurant and the waiter pours a wine that knocks your socks off. You ask to see the bottle. “Is this available at the SAQ,” you ask. “No,” the waiter replies. “It’s a private import brought in by the XYZ agency.” The next day, you call XYZ and order a case. A week or two later, you receive a call from a nearby SAQ outlet telling you your wine has arrived. You drop by the outlet, pay for your bottles and take them home with you.

Yes, ordering private imports can be that simple and straightforward. Except when it isn’t.

And since you’ll find not a word about private imports on the website, I’ve put together an FAQ on the ins and outs of ordering wines through the private import channel. You’ll find it after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by carswell

April 5, 2013 at 12:36

Posted in FAQs

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The new cons (miscellaneous)

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Product pages

  • Vintages are no longer shown for inexpensive wines.
  • Wines in outlets may not be the vintage shown online or, when two or more vintages are available, no vintage may be shown online.
  • The product info doesn’t include a link to the producer’s website. (EDIT 13/02/17: Looks like they’re doing it for some large producers, e.g. Cousiño-Macul.)
  • The product info doesn’t include the agency that represents the producer in Quebec.
  • The information for specific products (taste tags, tasting notes, drinkability windows, etc.) appears to be one-size-fits-all-vintages.


  • There’s no “wish list” or “favourites” function. Want to make a shopping list to take with you to the store? You’re going to have to print each product’s info or availability page or copy and paste the names into a word processor or another application.
  • There’s very little in the way of personalization aside from a “favourite outlets” list.
  • Why doesn’t the site remember my postal code? Or point me to the nearest outlet that has the product when none of my selected outlets does? Or adapt its product suggestions to my search and purchase history? Amazon can do this but not the SAQ?

Weak translations

  • The “practical tools” should be useful tools.
  • Mead is here called “honey wine.” Go figure.
  • No anglophone would ever say “terroir product,” which should probably be translated as Quebec product.
  • The alcool category should be called the neutral grain spirit (or neutral alcohol) category in English; instead it’s “alcohol.”
  • “Empyreumatic” means nothing to 99.9% of anglos, isn’t found in most dictionaries (e.g. the Canadian Oxford and Merriam Webster’s, though it is defined on and would be better rendered as charred or burned aromas.
  • One of the price ranges is “$40.00 and more.” “$40.00 and over” sounds more idomatic to me.
  • Literally topping them all, the HTML title “Wines, alcohols & spirits” is a calque of the French Vins, alcools, spiritueux. Do anglos even use “alcohols” in everyday speech? And, regardless, what can it possibly mean here? A better translation would surely be something like “Wine, beer and spirits” or “Wine and liquor.”

Assorted WTFs

  • No info is provided on how to order and return private imports, which account for a significant and growing percentage of the SAQ’s sales, especially among buyers of specialty products.
  • There’s no direct link to the online shop. You have to click a product category (e.g. wine) and then filter the results by selecting the online option.
  • People who use the online shop complain that they can’t save a session and return to complete it later.
  • Since the Our Suggestions products do not reflect the user’s preferences (as established by his/her search and purchase history), they’re useless. They’ve got nothing to do with products you might like, everything to do with products the SAQ wants to move. “Featured products” would be a more honest description. And, just wondering, but does the SAQ charge producers/agencies to display their products here?

Written by carswell

February 14, 2013 at 12:24

Posted in Commentary

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The new cons (search engine and results)

with 8 comments

While searches are much improved on the new site, they’re far from perfect.

  • The typing cursor used to default to the search box on every page. Now it doesn’t. You now have to click the search box before entering your search string. Why?
  • The search engine doesn’t recognize Boolean or other operators. The search string alsace -riesling displays – wait for it – Rieslings. Why can’t I search for every Alsatian product that isn’t a Riesling?
  • From the search results page, you used to be able to get to the Availability in Outlets page with one click. Now if you click the Available in Outlets bar under the product’s picture, it takes you to the product info page, where you then have to click the Availability in Outlets button.
  • Narrowing the search results down to a district of a city used to require selecting an option from a single drop-down menu. Now it requires selecting a option from two drop-down menus (more clicks, more mousing).
  • The search results take up far more real estate. On my monitor at the site’s default size setting, I see the full results for a grand total of four products and partial results for four more. To see the remaining 12 products (at the default setting of 20 results per page), I have to scroll.
  • You can’t select more than one option in a filter. If you want to know which champagnes are available in 375 ml and 500 ml formats, you have to do two searches.
  • The Price filter tops out at $40. That’s too low a bar these days: there are currently more than 3,000 wines that meet that description! I’m often asked to recommend an expensive bottle to mark a wine lover’s birthday or anniversary, so it’s clear people would find it useful to search for bottles priced between, say $75 and $125. Or sparklers over $150. You can’t do that now.
  • The Price filter brackets over $20 are too broad: $20.00 to $29.99; $30.00 to $39.99; $40 and more. At the very least, the ranges should be in increments of $4.99.
  • On the other hand, why not just let users set their own price range parameters? It’s not hard to imagine people looking for wines that cost, say, $30 give or take a couple of bucks. Why can’t they set the price range filter for $28 to $32? As it stands now, they’d have to do a search for bottles between $20 and $29.99 and then another search for bottles between $30 and $39.99 and then sort each set of results by price. Same thing if you’re looking for a product between $20 and $40. Ridiculous!
  • When you search for a product’s availability based on your postal code or district, the results are displayed as a list. Why not on a map?
  • You still can’t display a given outlet’s inventory (reportedly to come in a future version).
  • ADDED 13/02/18: The product descriptions on the Availability in Outlets pages have been condensed to the point of obscurity. For example, take the two currently available wines from Clos Canarelli. Vintage, price and SAQ code aside, the descriptions for the red and white are identical. Unless you remember that the red is the 2010, say, or the white runs $39.25, you’re not going to know which product’s availability you’re looking at. The description on the product info page includes the category (e.g. red wine) and size (e.g. 750 ml). Why not include them on the availability page too?
  • ADDED 13/06/09: The search engine distinguishes between accented and unaccented characters. It shouldn’t. Many anglos (and quite a few francos) don’t type accents or don’t know how to. Confounding the issue, the SAQ is inconsistent, sometimes spelling Barmès (as in Barmès Buecher) with the accent and other times without. As a result, searching for barmès currently finds four wines (three of them from Barmès Buecher) while searching for barmes finds three different Barmès Buecher wines. In an ideal world, searching for barmès or barmes would turn up all seven wines.
  • ADDED 13/07/31: Language discrimination! Plug Noilly into the French search engine and you’ll get back: Cinzano extra sec, Martini sec and Stock extra sec. Plug it into the English engine and you’ll get back zilch.

Written by carswell

February 14, 2013 at 12:08

Posted in Commentary

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The new cons (look and feel)

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Sad but true: the list of nits to pick with the new is too long for a single post. Here then is the first instalment, my complaints about the site’s overall look and feel.

  • Way too busy: sensory overload.
  • The layout elements (banner ads, pictures, menu names, element titles, etc.) are too big, take up far too much real estate. It may look good on a tablet but it’s lousy on a desktop monitor, even a fairly high pixel-count monitor like mine (1920 x 1080).
  • The reduce text option does only that – reduces the text size but not the size of the graphics and major titles, which is what one really wants to shrink.
  • The sizes of the various layout elements are disproportionate. When I use CTRL-minus to reduce the graphics, menu names and element titles to a reasonable size, one that lets me see most of the page without scrolling, one that doesn’t force me to look side to side to take it all in, the product details become too small to read easily, a problem compounded by their being printed in grey, not black.
  • The home page banner animation is on by default: you have to click the pause button each time to stop the distraction. What’s more, the animation’s a continuous loop. Don’t know about you, but the first thing I do when returning to the home page is rush to hit Pause.
  • The banner animation is too fast. You don’t always have time to take in the content before the next banner is displayed.
  • Oh, the dumbing down! Too much eye candy at the expense of useful information.
  • Too much redundancy. For example, the front page currently has four links to the food pairing engine: “Tips and Pairings” at the top of the page; “So happy together” under the Tchin Tchin graphic; “Wine and food pairings” the first  of the so-called practical tools; and “Wine and food pairings” under the Tips and Pairings menu at the the bottom of the page.
  • Seldom used links (e.g. the “practical tools”) are far too prominent.
  • Irrelevant links (e.g. “our suggestions”) are too prominent.
  • The site looks horrible on small-screen (e.g. smartphone) browsers. As Thomas commented yesterday, the lack of a dedicated mobile site is a major fail.
  • People who visit the site on tablets complain that it’s hard to scroll without inadvertently selecting a link.
  • As will be detailed in coming posts, the new site increases the amount of clicking, scrolling and general mousing required of users. If anything, it should have done the opposite.

Written by carswell

February 14, 2013 at 11:40

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The new pros

with 4 comments

With much fanfare, the SAQ launched its new website on February 4. There are definitely some improvements. Below are the things I like about it. A much longer list of things that, in my opinion, need work will be posted in a day or two.

Like the new, these pro and con posts are a work in progress and will be updated and corrected as I get to know the site better and as friends and readers provide input.

  • It’s taken a few days, but I’ve come to appreciate the drop-down mouseover menus at the top of the page.
  • The search engine is far superior to its predecessor: typo correction, suggested completions, fuzzy logic, search on multiple terms (e.g. Alsace Reisling 2008).
  • The options for filtering search results are nicely implemented via a sidebar on the results page.
  • The product size (format) filters are more granular and easier to understand and use (e.g. “750 ml” vs. the former “376 ml to 750 ml”).
  • The Price filter can now be set with a single click.
  • The new On Sale filter lets you display all the discounted products in a category. Similarly, you can limit searches to special categories like Cellier or Courrier vinicole products.
  • Your search and viewing history are displayed (though only the last three products).
  • The product information is often more extensive and includes the constituent grape varieties for many wines (it remains to be seen how regularly it will be updated).
  • Product photos can now be enlarged, often to the point where you can actually read what’s on the label.
  • While far from perfect, the automated food pairing suggestions are better implemented and more useful than on most other sites.
  • Page matching between the French and English sites is finally implemented (on the former site, if you were looking at say, a product page or news release on the French site and clicked the English button, you were taken to the English site’s home page and had to repeat your search. Now you’re taken to the equivalent page.)
  • Product page URLs are shorter and more comprehensible.
  • MapQuest is out, Google Maps is in.
  • The Useful Links and Resources page is much improved though in many ways it remains rudimentary (e.g. no links to English-language blogs, including this one, and only one link to a local French-language blog, Vin Québec).
  • Corporate information, such as policies, procedures, cellar rentals, previous-year annual reports and even director biographies, is newly available or more easily accessible.

Written by carswell

February 13, 2013 at 13:45

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Cellier, take two

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The SAQ’s Cellier magazine and associated releases are about to undergo a major overhaul. Here’s a passage from the Forum SAQ newsletter just sent to the monopoly’s suppliers and their local agents:

Cellier magazine will be transformed and published twice as often, that is, eight times a year. Two of the issues will keep the current format while the six others will inform readers of specialty wine arrivals. Each issue will feature two product releases scheduled for the two weeks following distribution of the issue. The magazine’s content and look will also be revised.

The six new-format issues will reportedly resemble the LCBO’s glossy Vintages circular, i.e. a slick promotional tool focused on the wines in the upcoming releases and little more. The new format is supposed to be rolled out after the last old-format Cellier – devoted, as usual for the spring issue, to Italian wines – is published in late February.

The stated goal is to expand the magazine’s appeal beyond the so-called Connoisseur customer segment and to boost traffic and sales through a combination of more frequent and visible releases, events like the recent Wine Spectator Top 100 promo and more emphatic merchandising of the Cellier section in outlets and of products within the section.

Written by carswell

December 21, 2012 at 00:39

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Occhipintalypse Now

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If the frenzy surrounding last Thursday’s release of Arianna Occhipinti‘s 2011 SP68 Rosso wasn’t totally without precedent, it most certainly was for a sub-$25 wine. The mania was primed by a glowing profile of the winemaker in a major daily, rave reviews from local critics, rapt discussion on local online fora, Arianna herself at the Salon des vins d’importation privée pouring the wine and lively debates among wine geeks about the best strategy for procuring some of the 900 bottles to go on sale in the province.

Yes, only 900 bottles. And the wine was released in over 100 Sélection outlets. Do the math and you’ll see that most outlets – even high-profile ones like Laurier – were allocated a single six-bottle case. A few high-volume outlets (Atwater and Rockland, for example) received 12 bottles. One or two got a heady 18.

I arrived at Laurier about 20 minutes before opening and even then was second in line. Three others soon joined us. (The only other time in recent memory this has happened, the day of the SAQ’s first-ever release of a Lapierre Morgon, the 2009, there were two of us queuing at Laurier.) As soon as the door opened, we all rushed to the Cellier display. A wine advisor asked who had come for the SP68 – everyone raised his hand – and announced a one-bottle-per-customer policy, which left a bottle for him. Two minutes after opening, Laurier outlet was sold out.

I had other wines to buy for that evening’s tasting and had decided not to run off to other outlets in search of more SP68. But several MWG members and friends did just that. One was third in line at a 12-bottle store and scored the maximum of three. He then drove to an outlet that opened half an hour later, where he was first at the door. When allowed in, he inquired about the wine and was told there must have been an inventory error because the store had none of the 12 bottles then showing on With other wines on his shopping list, he hung around for a few minutes, during which time he saw a wine advisor he knew from another outlet walk in, speak with the advisor who had told him the SP68 was AWOL and be given a shopping cart filled with the outlet’s entire allocation. Hotfooting it over to the shopping cart, the member prevailed upon the “reservist” to part with a couple from his dozen.

Other members and friends headed to less centrally located on-island outlets, where they managed to put their hands on a few flasks. All reported that the stores imposed a limit on the number of bottles a given customer could purchase.

A friend on the South Shore wasn’t so lucky. She arrived at her local outlet about 15 minutes before opening. Noticing several people in their cars with the motor running, she decided to wait by the door. As soon as she did, others scrambled to queue behind her. When the door opened, she took a minute to ask an employee where the wine was. Meanwhile, a man who’d been after her in the line snared all six of the outlet’s bottles. She hopped into her car and sped to the next nearest outlet. On entering, she saw another guy who’d come up empty-handed at the original outlet buying all six of this outlet’s bottles. He wasn’t willing to share but suggested she travel to a larger outlet that had 12 bottles. In the 15 minutes it took her to do so, they were snapped up, all by one person.

When I returned to the office in the early afternoon, I checked the online inventory for the wine. There were no bottles left on Montreal island, a couple showing in Laval and a few in farther flung outlets like Joliette. By Friday morning, even those were gone.

Why the detailed report? To illustrate that several things are fundamentally wrong with the SAQ’s current distribution model for highly sought-after wines.

First, the quantities. How could the SAQ have decided to purchase only 900 bottles? They were offered many more. (“Are you sure you didn’t drop a zero from that number” the agency representing the producer is reported to have asked the monopoly.) But the SAQ decided to “play it safe.” For a wine with a track record of selling like hotcakes through the more exclusive private import channel when the bottles were also $2 or $3 more expensive. For a wine that has been universally, ecstatically praised by the world wine media. For a wine that’s a favourite of local restaurateurs. For a wine that wine geeks across the city knew was going to cause a stampede.

Second, the day and hour of the release: outlet opening time (usually 9:30 or 10 a.m.) on a business day. I’m self-employed and so usually can swing it, but what do 9-to-5 types do? This is patently unfair.

Third, and most disturbingly, the inconsistencies around allocations to customers. On-island outlets at least had the sense not to let one customer walk away with all their bottles. But it was another story off island. And then there are the reports of staff in at least a couple of outlets reserving all or part of the outlet’s inventory for themselves and other employees.

Having been lucky enough to “discover” Arianna before she hit the big time, the MWG regularly purchased several cases of each vintage of the SP68 on a private import basis. Now that the SAQ’s stocking it, I’ll be surprised if the ten or so members who scoured the city in search of bottles managed to get a dozen among ourselves. What’s more, we had to do so by playing hookey and wasting time, effort and gas raiding outlet after outlet. Meanwhile some people who tried to score even one bottle couldn’t, while many others who would have liked to didn’t even have a chance.

The SAQ needs to correct this situation now.

Written by carswell

November 26, 2012 at 12:50

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