REGINA - Liquor has been flying off the shelves, fast, at your local government-owned SLGA stores.
Stores are clearing out their stock of alcohol at deep discounts during the month of December, as they prepare for the closure of the 34 remaining SLGA stores in the new year by no later than March 31, 2023. Those 34 licenses will then be auctioned off to potential private bidders, also happening in 2023.
At this point there are no major changes announced to the general timeline for when the existing stores are expected to close and the new licenses awarded, though in the case of a few northern-area stores their closure dates have been pushed back.
But customers have noticed increasingly empty shelves as well as bargain-basement prices on the remaining liquor on sale at the government stores this holiday season.
In an email, SLGA provided this statement:
“SLGA stores continue to mostly operate as usual. This includes replenishing most inventory as it is sold and continuing to serve customers during the busy holiday season. Discounts have been applied to products that make up the bottom 25 per cent of total sales volumes (slow moving products). All stores will wrap up operations by the end of March.”
A message at the SLGA website states that for now SLGA stores will continue to operate with some changes: stores are no longer selling gift cards and those must be redeemed before the stores are closed. Also, SLGA Retail has discontinued its special order process and customers are being urged to place special orders through other retailers."
A less sanguine picture of the situation is being painted by the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU), representing liquor store employees. They provided the following statement by email:
"Saskatchewan residents are already seeing the effects of this ill-advised decision to privatize the public liquor stores. Despite the government committing to keep the stores viable until they closed, SLGA shelves are almost empty province-wide, and the only replenishments are of the 100 or so top-selling products. If the government was genuinely concerned about so-called decreases to retail profits, they would replenish all products to ensure the highest sales possible during the busiest season of the year."
Earlier this month, SLGA employees and leaders with SGEU were at the Legislative Assembly pleading one more time to keep the public stores open. During that media availability Bob Stadnichuk, vice-president of SGEU, explained to reporters what the situation was like at the SLGA stores.
“The shelves are looking bad,” Stadnichuk said. "Originally, they told us that they were going to ensure the viability of the stores until the end of March, when the last of the stores close, but they are not even letting that happen anymore. So they’re putting on some sales, people are coming in looking at the sales, buying what they want, but when you don’t have stock on your shelves, they are not going to come back. So we’ve got employees who are coming to work and literally waiting for the end of the day because there’s nothing for them to do anymore.”
There have been plenty of rumors about the fates of the various government liquor stores, which are slated to close one by one by March 31, 2023, as well as speculation on which private interests might bid for each of the 34 licenses.
Stadnichuk said “you’re always going to hear rumors, but we won’t know until they start auctioning off these licenses. This is a big cash grab by the government.”
He said the government knows, from past practices, they can make $800,000 to $1 million from selling licenses. Stadnichuk believes numbers like those will price out any current employees hoping to put together a bid.
“We know who can afford million dollar licenses, and it’s not going to be any of the people who work at the public liquor stores.”
As for the future of the estimated 284 full-time equivalent employees (according to government numbers), SGEU had been negotiating a workplace adjustment plan with the province so that employees could have something to fall back on when they departed. In Question Period on Dec. 6, Minister for SLGA Lori Carr confirmed that was happening.
“Right now we’re working on a workforce transition plan for these employees, and those negotiations are still taking place, Mr. Speaker… So while the transition is taking place, we are going to watch what happens next. And as permits come for sale, the new stores will become available and options will be open at that point in time for everyone.”
This week, SGEU provided a further update, confirming that "negotiations between SGEU and SLGA related to store closures have concluded. Throughout negotiations, SGEU consistently fought to get the best possible deal for members. The employer has issued letters to affected staff with information."
SGEU also states they have learned from the employer that at least three northern stores in Buffalo Narrows, La Loche and La Ronge will be postponing their closure until March 11, with full shutdown by March 31.
"We were informed that this later date was chosen to provide additional time to navigate health-related aspects around alcohol use disorder. It is obvious the government had no clear plan in place to support store staff, community members and shoppers when making the abrupt and short-sighted decision to close SLGA stores."