December 23 is often the busiest day at the SAQ. If you plan to shop there today, be aware that if you spend a considerable amount of money, $25,000 a year, you could join the Crown corporation’s Big Connoisseurs program.
Made up of 400 people, this group has access to personalized services and to certain products normally absent from branch shelves. While this commercial practice aimed at favoring a segment of the clientele is deemed to be in conformity by the experts we interviewed, it still raises questions for some, since the state-owned company, in a monopoly situation, has a duty to universal accessibility.
Moreover, the existence of this group is little known to all SAQ customers, since the latter does not promote it on its website. This is in fact a category of buyers defined on the basis of expenses that are now easily traceable thanks to the SAQ’s loyalty program, Inspire. The buyer profiles range from “friendly” and “trendy” to that prestigious segment of the Great Connoisseurs.
Those who are part of it are entitled to a personalized service from advisers aware of their needs and can also meet winegrowers for tastings, with a commitment to purchase. This segment of Great Connoisseurs has existed for several years, specifies the SAQ. To gain access, the average price of bottles purchased by a customer must be at least $75, for annual spend of more than $25,000. It also gives exclusive access to rare products that will never be offered on the shelves, storage products.
“A small portion of the allowances for high-end products is kept for aging and sale, particularly to Great Connoisseurs customers,” explains the SAQ in a document obtained under the Act respecting access to documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information.
Meals, “verticals” and trips
Each year, the Great Connoisseurs can participate in about thirty “meetings”, confirms the spokesperson for the state-owned company, Geneviève Cormier. “The formula is essentially a meal attended by producers who come to present their products. The costs of these meetings are assumed by the SAQ, but it is important to mention that the sales resulting from these events are greater than the costs of their organization. »
“On rare occasions, products to complete a vertical may be offered to them,” she also explains.
A “vertical” is a series of bottles of the same wine, from the same estate, from consecutive vintages. This makes it possible to compare its development, depending on the vintage (vertical tasting).
These series of bottles are highly sought after in auctions, especially if they are from prestigious houses.
Great Connoisseurs are also invited to take part in wine trips. “Each of these trips is at the expense of the participants and is accompanied by a substantial purchase commitment, insists Mme Cormier. The costs associated with travel, accommodation and the work of the SAQ representative who accompanies them are assumed by the participating Great Connoisseurs. »
This special attention paid to a wealthy clientele who likes more expensive wines is in keeping with the SAQ’s commercial mission, believes Luc Bernier, professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
“A Crown corporation, by definition, has public policy objectives and a commercial mission,” he recalls. You have to balance the two. »
According to him, the Big Connoisseurs program makes sense, as does the Inspire program which, at the time of its creation, raised several questions about its relevance in a state monopoly.
“In the trade mission, it makes sense to treat the most interesting customers better,” says Luc Bernier. It’s like getting on the Air Canada plane for the Super Elites before the others. »
However, the expert believes that the SAQ must remain cautious in granting privileges. “A government corporation must also aim for the general interest, a notion that sometimes needs to be redefined,” he specifies. The state corporation, which is the SAQ, has to keep a little embarrassment. You are not supposed to favor too strongly a part of the clientele compared to the whole of the clientele. »
It’s a marketing tool, because it encourages these very big customers to continue to be.
Luc Bernier, professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa
If the practice is in line with the SAQ’s commercial mission, it nevertheless raises questions regarding the universal accessibility of wines that should be offered by the monopoly, specifies Frédéric Laurin, professor of economics at the University of Quebec. in Trois-Rivieres.
According to Mr. Laurin, the idea of offering an additional service to a certain niche clientele is legitimate, but reserving products for them inevitably limits access for other clients. “That’s the biggest frustration of someone who doesn’t have $25,000,” he says. A wine lover who buys bottles at $25 will not have access to services that might interest him because, if he is not a “great connoisseur”, in the words of the SAQ, he can nevertheless love good Burgundy wines, even treat yourself to a grand cru from time to time.
“My hobbyhorse has always been accessibility”, recalls the professor, author of the book Where are the wines?.
He himself sometimes has difficulty getting his hands on a cuvée offered in Montreal, but which cannot be found on shelves in Mauricie or online at SAQ.com.
“In La Baie, on the other hand, if I want to buy a medium-sized black t-shirt and it’s in Kamloops, I can have it,” he compares.
For wine, the problem with the Grands Connaisseurs program is also that it prevents access to prestigious bottles for customers who do not respect a minimum expenditure.
In addition, the small onion treatment reserved for the SAQ’s largest buyers is in contradiction with its public health mandate, recalls Michel Séguin, professor in the organization and human resources department of the School of Management Sciences of the ‘University of Quebec in Montreal.
“The government has decided to create a state corporation whose mission, much like the [Société québécoise du cannabis], to support a type of trade to ensure reasonable consumption and limit the impact on health. »
According to him, the relevance and legitimacy of the monopoly stem from its public health mission, in addition to its economic mission.
“Any marketing strategy that aims to promote greater consumption, to generate greater profits, is questionable in relation to this public health mission. »
With the collaboration of William Leclerc, The Press
- 226.2 million
- Number of liters of alcohol sold by the SAQ for the year 2021-2022. These are the highest annual sales of the state corporation’s last 10 fiscal years.
Source: Quebec Liquor Corporation
- Average price per liter of products sold at the SAQ for the year 2021-2022. This is the highest price per liter of the last 10 financial years.
Source: Quebec Liquor Corporation