Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Parallel lines

A frequent demand from anti-alcohol campaigners is that supermarkets should have dedicated alcohol checkouts, rather than allowing drink to be included within the main family shop. The key argument behind this is that seeing drinks on sale encourages people to buy more than they otherwise would, but the evidence behind this is very questionable. Over the past fifteen years, we have seen a substantial increase in the apparent availability of drinks, but on the other hand a significant reduction in overall consumption. It may lead to people buying different products, but it doesn’t make them buy more.

I remember when it was always the case that alcoholic drinks were sold via separate counters, either dedicated off-licences or sited within supermarkets. The first time I saw drinks being stocked on the normal self-service shelves was in the early 80s. But I don’t think this was due to a change in the law, but more to the realisation that supermarket shoppers were increasingly picking up drinks as part of their weekly shop. It was no longer the responsibility of the male of the household to make a separate visit to the offie.

Creating a separate drink sales area and checkout would not be too challenging for the typical supermarket. In fact, the giant Morrisons at Hollinwood, Oldham, seems to have been laid out with that in mind. I’ve joked on Twitter that it would help me do my shopping without having to queue behind people buying vegetables and nappies. Realistically, it would make no difference to drink sales and maybe even make life more convenient for some.

Would the alcohol section be prevented from selling related products such as bottle openers, corkscrews, crisps, nuts and scratchings? Even in the old days, the classic “offie” used to stock things like that, plus sweets and chocolate bars. And surely it would be unreasonable to apply this to convenience stores of under 3,000 sq ft, where it would simply be impractical.

So the conclusion must be that this is another example of pointless gesture politics from the anti-drink lobby, that would make no difference in practice except to subtly advance the denormalisation of alcohol. In reality you would have to have a dramatic reduction in availability to produce any decline in consumption. Availability follows demand, not the other way round.

A further thought is that tobacco products have always been sold through separate counters, which in the past were often combined with the drink counters. Is this a legal requirement, or just a recognition of the risk of theft from self-service shelves?


  1. Skipton's Morrisons has a separate alcohol section too; away from the rest of the store, with its own tills and a security gate at the entrance to it.

  2. I had a Saturday/holiday job at Booths in St Annes in the 70s and we had a separate counter for alcohol and tobacco. I always thought that part of the reasoning was that wine was a fairly new thing and the manager could advise people on what variety would be best (ie not just red or white). Being near the door, it also made it easier for the old ladies who popped in just for a bottle of sherry "for a friend".

  3. You're right. Back in the 1990s, my local Kwiksave had one counter for booze and fags. But the other supermarkets had a booze aisle.

  4. most places that have a separate till/area for alcohol do it to combat shoplifting.

  5. Wasn't a boozer till the early 90s. I remember Liquor Save at Quick Save being a seperate section but every other supermarket had a booze aisle which could be cordoned off. A proper pain if you were after a bottle of wine on a sunday afternoon to take round a lasses that had offered to cook you dinner and hopefully a bit of afternoon delight.

    In the late 80s the supermarkets were the most difficult for the underaged drinker. Victoria Wine was good for getting served but a bit pricier. Underage tax.

    I think a change like this makes buying booze a little bit more of an arse ache. It's another queue to join, the queue of sin. You won't be able to throw booze into whatever money off token your basket of goods is. No effect on committed booze hounds like you lot, but its one of them nudge policies aimed at the less committed and new market entrants. The kids at university doing there own shopping for the first time won't scoot down the booze aisle along with every other and discover the early 90s joy and relative at the time cheapness of Sainsburys own brand Dutch Lager.

    1. All supermarkets in Northern Ireland still have the alcohol in a dedicated separate section usually with a gate at the entrance... you can pay at the normal checkouts but you wouldn't see the alcohol dotted around the store

  6. If a supermarket doesn't have a 24 hour a day drinks licence it makes it easier to cordon off a dedicated section.

  7. I would actually prefer a separate counter for booze. My local Sainsbury’s used to have a separate counter for tobacco sales where you could pay for all your general items as well as your tobacco at the same time. The queues were always shorter, partly because most non-smokers seemed to think that that counter could only sell tobacco, which wasn’t the case, but also because many people were only buying tobacco and so the transactions of many of the people in front of you in the queue were incredibly quick. So you could be in and out in a flash whilst on the other side of the shop everyone was stuck in huge queues behind people with massive trolley-loads of their shopping and surrounded by hoards of screaming children. Strangely enough, they’ve gone in the opposite direction to the one cited here and have recently put all their tobacco products behind the main till section, which means that if you’re just popping in for a packet of cigarettes and a pint of milk you now have to wait in the long main queue (so I don’t bother going in any more unless I’m doing a substantial shop).

    It might have just been a reorganisation or something, but I personally think that some of the non-smokers had kicked up a bit of a stink because of the faster and better checkout service that the smokers were very clearly getting! So ... separate booze counters (which will, I suspect, inevitably include tobacco, too) are really good news for alcohol-imbibers or smokers, simply because fewer people use them. Unless they make it a completely separate transaction, of course – but it’s doubtful that they’ll do that, because they’d then lose out on the additional: purchases which so often go with a quick trip into the supermarket, and which they depend on quite heavily for much of their profits.

    So – separate counters? Bring ‘em on!

  8. Commensurate with your observations in Oldham, there are quite a lot of Morrison's all over W.Yorks, probably from the first generation of larger stores they developed that have a separate liquor store - a separate shop but under the same roof. It's a good idea for a lot of reasons - under age sales, stock security, etc, in so far as the liquor store staff only have to concentrate on one legislated area.

  9. An issue I've heard mentioned relating to Northern Ireland is that, if you have one of those vouchers for £5 off if you spend £40, you can't spread it across both tills on the same visit, which doesn't seem reasonable.

    The Oldham store doesn't have separate tills, just a distinctly separate alcohol area that could easily be barriered off.


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