Quebec food store owners angry over liquor board credit card cut

SAQ will no longer accept payments by credit cards starting in January

Quebec grocery store owner Dany Drouin loves the many benefits that come with being an official affiliate of the province's liquor board, the Société des alcools du Québec—or SAQ.

But he's not happy about the SAQ's decision to end a longstanding purchase practice that put as much as $800 a month in his pocket.

As of Jan. 9, SAQ affiliates will no longer be able to pay for their wine and liquor orders with credit cards. Only cash, debit, cheques and payment by Internet will be accepted.

"C'est plate (What a drag)," said Drouin, who owns a Marché Omni-bannered store in the mountainous village of St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, 50 kms northeast of Quebec City. "My profit margins aren't big and I really appreciate the redeemable points I get on my card."

Many if not all of the 400 SAQ affiliates across la belle province likely share that view.

Located in stores in mostly small rural communities with no SAQ outlet, affiliates are selected through public tenders that grant them five-year licenses.

They must adhere to a myriad of conditions that include the sale of SAQ-only liquor products at SAQ prices, and adequate shelve space and signage.

Affiliates must also order and pick up their orders at SAQ outlets.

In a letter sent to its affiliates on Nov. 1, and which Canadian Grocer obtained a copy of, the SAQ says no supplier of its size in the agro-food industry accepts payment by credit card.

"We have therefore taken the decision to standardize our business practices to harmonize them with the industry," reads the letter.

SAQ spokesperson Rénald Dugas said the move is "good management practices."

While acknowledging that some store owners "will require adjustment to the new procedures," Dugas said the SAQ has also improved its deferral payment program that gives affiliates 90 days to pay.

The program has been increased to include Easter in addition to the Christmas holidays and summer season.

"That should help our affiliates deal with the change," said Dugas.

But a senior official with the province's biggest grocers' association says there is widespread anger from affiliates over the SAQ's unexpected edict.

"We're getting a lot of calls," said Florent Gravel, general manager of the Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec, which represents some 8,000 food stores of all size and banner.

Gravel called the credit card ban the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

"It's the latest in a long list of irritants," said Gravel.

He notably accused the SAQ of unfairly singling out affiliates.  "Why is it just them?" he asked.  "Why don't they apply it to restaurants and customers or to Internet sales, for which they deliver?"

Gravel said a meeting is planned for Tuesday in Montreal between ADA and SAQ officials.

"We will air our grievances and defend our members," said Gravel.  "This decision will have a big impact on many SAQ affiliates."

According to Drouin, traffic and sales at his store have continued to increase since he became a SAQ affiliate three years ago.

"Customers love it," he said.  "They say it saves them a trip to (the nearest SAQ outlet, a 15-minute drive away)."

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