Amidst a highly-publicized spike in liquor thefts in Winnipeg, at least one private vendor just outside the city has put some of its more expensive stock out of public reach.
The vendor, which the Free Press isn’t naming to prevent it from being targeted, has kept beers, wines and coolers on its shelves, while blocking access to pricier liquors (such as rum, rye and scotch). If a customer wants to purchase those items, an employee retrieves the bottle.
It’s not far off from the way liquor was once sold the province.
Up until 50 years ago, Manitobans looking to purchase liquor would fill out an order slip and bring it to the counter, where a clerk or cashier would retrieve it for them from an area out of public reach. In March 1969, the province followed Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Ontario’s lead in opening its first "self-serve" store, where customers could shop for liquor just as they did for produce at the supermarket.
The rural vendor's move to turn back the clock comes as liquor retail locations across the province grapple with a publicized rise in thefts. Winnipeg police report fielding between 10 and 20 such calls per day.
Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries director of corporate affairs Andrea Kowal said the Crown corporation has "state-of-the-art" surveillance methods at its Liquor Mart locations, adding a variety of loss-prevention strategies have been deployed, including bottle locks and security posted at the door.
But even at stores using those methods, thefts have continued, she added. "If there was a silver bullet, we would’ve implemented it by now."
So is it time to explore a return to an over-the-counter approach or at some variation on it?
One business that has adopted similar ideas is the nascent cannabis industry. Across the city and province, cannabis retail shops keep a small amount of product on the sales floor, with the rest behind a counter, locked away and out of reach.
"It’s a very different sales model," said Liz Stephenson, chief administrative officer of the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba. Cannabis retail has also emphasized identification checks upon entry, and direct, one-on-one interaction with salespeople.
Stephenson said the lock-and-key model had more to do with the security of the product itself, not as a deterrent of theft. There was concern of underage people accessing the substance, and the small packaging would have made it a less conspicuous theft target if available on the floor.
"There was a lot of concern over the introduction of this product," she said. "We were really looking at ways to help the stores manage their inventory and make sure the product is secure."
So far, Stephenson said the authority is not aware of theft from any of the retail stores in the 13 months since legalization.
Stephen O’Keefe, a Toronto-based loss prevention expert, said for businesses such as cannabis retailers who get to start from scratch, the behind-the-counter model makes sense. For those who’ve long-relied on self-service, it’s a bit more complicated, he said.
O’Keefe said while the method has worked well from a security perspective in some cases, it often is accompanied by a risk to total sales and labour costs: it takes more time to go to the storeroom and retrieve 12 bottles of vodka separately than it does to retrieve all 12 in one trip and put them on the shelf.
"There is a tradeoff," he said. "If I’m going to sacrifice sales, how much am I going to sacrifice?"
He outlined the case of Consumers Distributing, a Canadian catalogue company that popularized the order-and-retrieve style of sales. Eventually, the company’s revenues dropped significantly due to backdoor and internal theft, even with the built-in security considerations of the sales model. It ceased operations in 1996.
O'Keefe said retailers with shrinkage concerns might look to consider piloting a combination approach, locking some items away and keeping others out. Still, it’s all hypothetical, and there are other root issues that need to be addressed and research to be done, he said.
"We continue to explore all options; however, there is no one simple solution to this issue," said Laurel Trotter, a spokesperson for Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, when asked if the corporation was considering a return to previous sales models.
John Graham, director of government relations for the Retail Council of Canada, said there is a "delicate balance of not overreacting to the risk of theft," which might erode the customer experience and the success of retailers. Broader safety concerns in the community need to be addressed, as well.
"Shoplifting is certainly an issue no retailer is immune to," he said. "I think if you look at overall models across Canada, the idea of putting product behind a wall, even on a pilot basis, is an ineffective solution."
For at least one rural Manitoba liquor vendor, however, it's a solution worth exploring.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.