Officials at NB Liquor are looking at many ways to make the Crown corporation more efficient – from regional co-operation to privatization – but president Daniel Allain says the options will be weighed carefully before any long-term decisions are made.

“Everything’s on the table, we’re looking at about 20 options right now,” Allain said yesterday. NB Liquor has a mandate to strengthen its position as a retailer, cut costs, increase profits and streamline its operation.

Allain, who was appointed president of the Crown corporation following last fall’s provincial election, said he has spent the last 10 weeks logging over 11,000 kilometres around the province and has so far visited 44 of the corporation’s 47 retail outlets. He’s also met with representatives of the major breweries and officials in the wine and spirits industry to find out what they expect in the future.

It’s all part of a study to chart the corporation’s strategic plan for 2013 and beyond. The information now being gathered will be contained in a report to be submitted to the provincial government later.

“I’ve been very busy,” Allain said.

NB Liquor is under pressure from the provincial government to cut costs and increase profits. There have also been suggestions that the government sell off or privatize the corporation as it tries to get the province’s $820-million deficit under control.

Charles Cirtwill, head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, told Canadaeast News Service recently that NB Liquor would be a good candidate for a sell-off because it is worth a lot of money and delivers a reliable revenue stream. The Crown corporation has no debt and delivers about $160 million in revenue to the province each year. Overall annual sales are $394.8 million.

During the economic summit held in Moncton late last year, there were suggestions that NB Liquor be merged with other corporations in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Delegates suggested this would reduce costs and give the larger organization more buying power.

Even though there are calls for the sale of NB Liquor, Allain believes the province shouldn’t rush into any decisions.

He said NB Liquor is already a hybrid of a public-private system with 47 agency stores and 72 licensed agency stores. The agency stores operate mainly in rural areas and are located in gas stations and convenience stores. Allain also boasts that NB Liquor now has the lowest sales-to-expenses ratios in Canada at 11 per cent.

He said NB Liquor is looking at other jurisdictions as part of the study, including Alberta, which privatized its liquor operations into the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission in 1993 and boasts that its operations and sales have grown immensely since then. Sales of beer, wine, spirits and coolers in Alberta went from just over $1 billion in 1993 to over $2 billion in 2009. The AGLC reports that beer sales alone went from $481 million in 1993 to $921 million in 2009.

“Yes, they have privatization in Alberta. Is that a good thing? We’re looking at it. But we’re not the only province or state that is doing this. There are 18 states that are going through the same process.”

But the first mandate is to improve the corporation’s image as a retailer that offers consumers selection, good prices and convenience.

“It shouldn’t be a chore to go to the liquor store. It should be an adventure and convenient.”

One of the first proposed changes is a shortening of store hours to cut costs.

NB Liquor announced just before Christmas that it is looking at opening some stores an hour later and closing an hour earlier.

The Crown corporation is under orders from the provincial government to cut two per cent (about $2 million a year) from its operational costs, but still deliver about $160 million a year in revenue to the coffers in Fredericton. All departments and agencies are under orders to make cost cuts as the new Conservative government attempts to bring New Brunswick’s budget deficit under control.

Spokeswoman Nora Lacey said NB Liquor wants to make changes that have the least impact on employees and customers. And since salaries and benefits are the biggest cost, it was decided that changing the store hours to open later and close earlier was the easiest way to do it.

If the idea goes forward, it would mean that staff would go from a compressed work week of 40 hours over three days to a more regular shift of 40 hours over five days. Officials with the union have said the employees will bear the brunt of the cost-cutting measures. The three-day-per-week schedule was negotiated into the union contract in 1993.

Closing the stores an hour earlier might not sit well with customers who are accustomed to making the dash to the liquor store on the last hour of operation, between 9 and 10 p.m.

“So we’re looking at the data and sales figures from every store to determine traffic patterns, especially on the last hour of operation,” Lacey said, noting that the study might show that some stores should remain open until 10 p.m. while others close earlier.

NB Liquor is looking at operations in Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Quebec and Ontario to see what they do.

Lacey said the research now being done might mean some stores are open longer to accommodate customer demand, but the changes are definitely scheduled to go ahead on April 1.

The changes will not affect the agency stores, which are privately-run, usually found in rural areas in gas stations and convenience stores. Those stores set their own hours.

NB Liquor is also looking at cost-cutting measures in other departments – design and construction, supply chain and facilities, human resources and corporate services; and finance.

But the cost-cutting measures are not expected to affect plans to open new stores this year. NB Liquor is planning to move from its current location on the Coverdale Road in Riverview to a site next to the new Sobeys on Findlay Boulevard this spring. A similar move is planned for West Saint John.

Lacey said it makes sense for liquor stores to be located next to grocery stores, like the new one next to the Sobeys on Vaughan Harvey Boulevard in Moncton. Allain said having liquor stores next to grocery stores has resulted in increased sales and customers like the idea of being able to drop into the liquor store and the grocery store in one stop.

Does that mean there’s a possibility of letting grocery stores sell beer and wine? Not yet, but they’re looking at the possibility in the study.