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Saskatchewan to sell off most liquor stores

Booze shops will be allowed to operate in grocery store buildings

The Saskatchewan government is selling 40 of its 75 liquor stores to make them private outlets.

The government will also allow private liquor stores to operate as standalone outlets in existing building such as grocery stores.

Don McMorris, minister for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, says it was time to modernize how booze is sold.

"There's been 70 years of regulation protectionism built up in this system and we don't get rid of it all, but we take a very large step, first step, maybe last step, I don't know, into the future,'' McMorris said Wednesday.

"So we take a step kind of tearing a lot of that back and by doing that, I think we give citizens of the province more choice, more convenience and more competitive pricing.''

The province will also add 12 new private liquor stores in various communities.

Saskatchewan is already home to several private liquor stores, including a few run by Sobeys and Saskatoon Co-op.

McMorris said the changes would level the playing field for all stores because they will all have the same rules.

That means all stores will be able to operate between 8 a.m. and 3 a.m., can sell any type of chilled product, and will pay a uniform wholesale price.

Those rules are currently different for government-owned liquor stores, franchises in rural communities, outlets known as off-sales that have the ability to stay open late and four private stores that recently opened in Regina and Saskatoon.

Private liquor stores will be allowed to be built into existing buildings, such as supermarkets, as long as they are stand-alone stores with separate entrances inside and out. The liquor portion of those stores would be required to have a separate cash from the rest of the store as well.

A request for proposal is to be made to select new operators, but government liquor store employees are to get preferential consideration if they want to buy the store.

The overhaul to the liquor system comes after the government launched a consultation in November 2014 in which 62% of citizens said that they supported more private liquor stores in the province.

"People expected change. People want change, but did they want to go extreme? And that was clear. Certainly some did and some (wanted) status quo,'' said McMorris.

The minister also said the province should still collect the same amount of revenue because all retailers will have to buy alcohol through the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority.

The union representing liquor store workers was skeptical.

The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union suggested the plan will drain millions in revenue from public coffers and pointed out that the 40 stores being sold earned profits of $32.6 million last year.

"To be perfectly honest, I think I'm still in shock,'' said union spokeswoman Donna Christianson.

"I saw maybe some coming, but not to this magnitude. This is over half of our government liquor stores. These stores contribute revenue back into the province. It's concerning to me.''

The union is open to changes such as longer hours, Christianson said, but it wanted them within the current model. She said the union was never approached.

"You want to put a kiosk in the grocery store and sell a few bottles of wine? Absolutely put our people in there,'' said Christianson.

"There has been nothing stopping him. The union has not stood in the way for any of that, any of the changes that he and the government of the day are talking about, but we've never been given the opportunity.''

It will be up to retailers to set the price for alcohol, but McMorris said he believes 99% of liquor will be sold at about the same price.

The changes won't be implemented until after the provincial election in April 2016.

Premier Brad Wall has said the Saskatchewan Party will campaign on the liquor changes and that winning the election would be receiving approval from Saskatchewan residents.

Saskatchewan’s announcement was made on the same day that Ontario announced the first 60 of 450 supermarket operators that will be allowed to sell six-packs of beer.

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