Alcohol price cap: ‘Crossing the Border to shop could be a hammer blow’

Shopkeepers fear cheaper prices in North will lure away their regular customers

Co Leitrim shop-owner Karol Scollan fears his Gala store could suffer as a result of the introduction of minimum unit alcohol pricing this week.

With Drumshanbo located just half an hour from the Border, across which drink prices were already lower, he believes there could be an exodus of shoppers who elect to fill their car boots with more than cheaper alcohol.

“My worry is that they will go for the booze but fill up the car with other groceries when they are there. And they could get into the habit of going,” he said.

“We saw it with coal when the carbon tax was raised. People started going over the Border and getting a ton of coal at a time.”

Minimum unit pricing creates a point beneath which alcohol cannot legally be sold and targets products that are cheap relative to their strength. The minimum price is determined by, and directly proportionate to, the amount of pure alcohol in the drink.

An average bottle of wine cannot now be sold for under €7.40, a can of beer costs at least €1.70 and the prices of spirts have risen, with bottles of vodka or gin costing a minimum of €20.70 and whiskey at least €22.

Scollan says the news is not all bad for operators of small off-licences such as his as the controversial public health measure should create a “level playing field” between them and supermarkets.

Slabs of beer

“I think this is going to affect the bigger supermarkets more than the smaller independent off-licences, but it is hard to know what will happen. If people get into the habit of crossing the Border to shop, that could be hammer blow for smaller businesses like ours.”

Large retailers had, he said, been selling slabs of brand beer cans for €18 before Christmas. “I couldn’t even buy them for that,” he says, adding that it will be a relief to be free from that kind of competition.

However, Scollan says he is conscious that his own customers will see a sharp rise in some prices as a result of the new law. “Twenty-four cans of Budweiser will go from €24 to €40.71.”

Drumshanbo is home to the Shed Distillery, which produces Gunpowder gin, Sausage Tree vodka and Drumshanbo whiskey, but some argue it is poorer households or people with drink problems shopping at the lower end of the drinks market who will be hardest hit.

At Carry Out off-licence at The Reeks Gateway in Killarney, Co Kerry, sales assistant Michael Cronin was busy deciphering the new price list.

He said Apple Tree cider “might as well be discontinued” given the price of six cans was rising from €5.50 to €9.50. He expects the worst for other similarly priced drinks as “there will be no demand for them now”.

‘Three-pronged approach’

Specialist craft beers are also affected, which Cronin believes could impact sales of popular locally produced ales and beers such as those from the Killarney Brewing Company.

Off-licence and retail workers in Killarney predicted that rather than stopping drinking altogether, some would switch because of the new laws from buying spirits to wine, for example, to get more value.

A staff member in the off-licence at Dunnes on New Street in the town said they saw no downturn in sales when customers were no longer permitted to buy alcohol with €10 vouchers received for spending €50 in the store.

“There has been a three-pronged approach – first the vouchers, then the segregation of alcohol from the rest of the shop and now the minimum unit price,” they said, adding that these Government interventions had shifted the sale of alcohol into new territory.

At Sheahan’s Centra on New Street, shop assistants there felt the price hikes would make little difference to people who drank a lot, beyond perhaps seeing them shop around more.

One said vodka was a huge seller and that while the price of Smirnoff had increased, customers would still buy it or alcohol in another form.

“If people want it, they are still going to buy it,” they said.