Wednesday, October 24, 2007

PLCB versus the LCBO

Recently, when the US and Canadian dollars reached parity, and 1 USD = 1 CAD, I took my first trip to Toronto.

While I was there, I decided to visit a wine store, to search for a couple of Canadian wines, which I rarely see in the US (at least in PA). Like Pennsylvania, Ontario has a liquor control board, known as the LCBO, through which all wine has to be purchased. According to Wikipedia, the LCBO is the largest and the PLCB is the second largest wine and liquor purchasers in the world. It seemed essential that I compare the two.

The first thing I noticed entering a LCBO store is that they're very pretty. They
make you comfortable with a decor of soothing yellows and greens. LCBO apparently puts a little more effort into decorating their stores than the PLCB. Like the PLCB, the LCBO features several different kinds of stores, ranging from cramped stores with small selection downtown, to larger stores with more to offer outside of the city center (where retail space appears cheaper).

I have to mention it: the employees I encountered a the two Toronto LCBO stores I visited were amazing. First and foremost, they were almost all friendly and outgoing, even though both stores were SWAMPED with customers. Second, they were unbelievably fast at their jobs --- especially the cashiers. Once we got to the cash register, it took about 30 seconds to ring up, pay for, and bag our 3 bottles of wine. I've never seen a cashier move as fast as I did that day. I have never been to a PLCB store and had the same experience.

The LCBO selection is clearly biased towards favoring Canadian wines wherever possible (although this could have been due to close proximity to Canadian
wine producing regions). At least 15 percent of their retail space (and perhaps
more) was devoted to VQA Canadian wines. I have never looked very hard for Canadian wines at the PLCB, but I have only seen a single lonely offering mixed into the "Other Red Wines" section.

According to Wikipedia, the LCBO has a reputation for high prices. I used the online web sites for both the PLCB and the LCBO to generate this small sampling of comparison prices. It was particularly difficult finding the exact same version of popular wines in both stores. I suspect this is due to bulk purchasing done by both organizations --- in 2003 PLCB negotiates the best deal and gets most of Kim Crawfords Selection X, and in 2004 the LCBO gets it.

Twin Fin Cab Sauvignon 6.9914.30
Fish Eye Pinot Grigio 20067.9910.15
Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages 200610.9916.95
Chateau Cardonne Medoc 23.09 26.95
Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 200229.9924.95
Alkoomi Blackbutt 200235.9927.00
Leeuwin Shiraz Art Series 2003 32.9935.15
Grant Burge Holy Trinity GSM 2002 37.9535.39
Two Hands Lily' Garden Shiraz 200443.9965.00
Corino Barolo Arborina 52.99 66.00
Clarendon Hills Sandown Cab Sauv 2004 64.00 68.00
Silver Oak Cab Sauv 200299.9982.95
Opus One 2003 164.00 143.95
Opus One 2004 175.89 269.95
Chateau Margaux 1998 347.00 395.00

Even when you factor in sales taxes --- 18 percent for the PLCB and 12 percent for the LCBO, almost all of these wines are generally more expensive in Toronto (and sometimes a lot more expensive) than they are in Pittsburgh. Only four cases in the above selections do the LCBO prices beat PLCB prices. Interestingly, it seems that the LCBO charges more than the PLCB even for many super expensive wines for which I doubt either purchaser is getting much of a volume discount. It would be interesting to see how much profit each organization makes off of each wine.

I have to observe that it's possible that the LCBO prices above may seem high because of the recent shifts in the value of the canadian dollar relative to the US dollar. If we were comparing these prices a year ago, we would have to knock at least 15 percent off the values of the LCBO wines. That makes many of the LCBO offerings look as good as or better than the PLCB offerings. It will be interesting to observe how the LCBO wine prices and PLCB wine prices adjust over the next year or so. My suspicion is that PLCB will have a much more difficult time of procuring foreign wines with such a weak US dollar, but it is hard to say.

While searching online for PLCB and LCBO offerings, I found that the PLCB almost always offers a greater selection than the LCBO. For example, the PLCB offers
59 St Emilions to LCBO's 10, 126 Amarones to LCBO's 66, etc. This, of course, includes wines that have to be special-ordered from the PLCB. If you remove the special-orders from the PLCB listings, you approach numbers much closer to LCBO's. The LCBO, also seems to be a little more liberal about letting you ship wines in yourself, so this may or may not be a significant issue.

While searching the PLCB and LCBO pages for wines to price compare, I found that the PLCB seems to almost always offer a wider selection than the PLCB. This, of course, includes wines that are only offered by the PLCB under special orders

As I mentioned above, I used both the PLCB and the LCBO web pages for a wee bit to research this article. Like their stores, the LCBO web page is about 100 times prettier than the PLCB offering. The functionality, however, is more or less similar. It seems as if the LCBO suffers from the same braindead "show me the wines in my local store" functionality as the PLCB --- You can do it, but it is a pain, taking much more effort than needed. Finally, the LCBO has found a unique way of sucking my soul through my ears, by breaking my search every time that I accidentally hit my "Return" key to submit a form instead of clicking on the "Search" button (It manages to return 0 matches for whatever I search for in that case).

In general, I've found the LCBO experience to be generally similar to the PLCB experience. The prices are possibly a bit higher than the PLCB's, but in exchange you get a cheerier atmosphere, and what appears to be faster service. Still, neither one can really compare to the customer service experiences I've gotten at independently-run wine stores in Ohio and New Jersey. I still don't understand fully why those success stories cannot be recreated inside Pittsburgh and Toronto.

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