West Auckland booze war: The Trusts inks partnership with Liquorland – a new dawn?

For the first time in half a century, West Aucklanders will be able to buy alcohol from a bottle store that is not branded by the Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trusts (“The Trusts”).

Under a “hybrid” arrangement announced overnight, The Trusts will operate four Liquorland stores in the region as a franchisee.

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But although The Trusts will own and operate the Liquorland-branded stores, and appoint one of its staff as a manager of each outlet, its CEO Allan Pollard says Liquorland will set promotional pricing.

“The promotional pricing will be the same as Liquorland sets nationwide,” Pollard tells the Herald.

Day-to-day pricing will be “recommended” by Liquorland’s head office, but with a Trusts’ appointed manager free to over-rule it. However, Pollard says project on special usually accounts for the bulk of sales.

The Liquorland stores will use Flybuys as their loyalty incentive scheme – as per the chain’s nationwide policy – rather than The Trusts’ points programme.

Under the partnership, three of The Trusts’ bottle stories – in Te Atatu, Blockhouse Bay and Titirangi – will become Liquorland franchises, and a new Liquorland will be opened in Hobsonville (in a new complex off Hobsonville Rd, anchored by a New World), again operated by The Trusts as a franchisee.

All four should be up and running by Labour weekend, Pollard says.

Liquorland – New Zealand’s largest specialty liquor retailer with more 130 stores nationwide – is 100 per cent owned by Foodstuffs, the company that also includes New World, Pak’nSave, Gilmours and Four Square in its stable of franchised brands.

Pollard called Liquorland “the first cab off the rank” as the CEO endeavoured to add an element of competition to alcohol sales in West Auckland (which currently has 26 bottle stores and 10 bars, all directly controlled by The Trusts).

The West Auckland Licensing Trusts Action Group (“Waltag” or “Trusts Action” for short), yesterday revealed it likely already had enough signatures to force public vote on ending The Trusts’ monopoly. The Ginger Group says The Trusts’ pricing is 10 per cent higher than the rest of Auckland and that its bars are down-at-heel.

Pollard says sprucing up The Trusts hospitality business is next on his list. Locations were being scouted around Hobsonville and Hobsonville Point for a bar that would me more upmarket than The Trusts’ existing establishments (Hobsonville Point is already home to the Lion-owned Little Creatures, which skirts The Trusts’ control because it sells more food than beer).

Will more Liquorland stores follow?

“The market will decide,” Pollard says. “Not The Trusts or Waltag.”

If the Liquorlands prove popular, more franchisee arrangements will follow.

Pollard said a percentage of profits from each of the four Liquorland stores would be returned to the community, as The Trusts does with its own directly run stores (and bars and pokies).

The new CEO, appointed in June 2020, has sparred with Trusts Action spokesman Nick Smale on social media, but through a video manifesto released in January, he has also set a new tone, acknowledging his organisation needed to lift its game in areas including transparency, service and pricing.

This morning, Smale told the Herald: “Overall it looks like a positive development.”

He added, “It’s good for consumers. Liquorland has a good offerin terms of range, service and price – and is successful elsewhere. So good to have them in West Auckland.”

But he qualified: “It’s a big stretch to say it’s ‘competition’. It’s not competition -it’s a different banner under the control of the same owner.”

Smale also had concerns about the setup and operational costs. (Pollard told the Herald he anticipated the Liquorland franchises would end up being more cost-effective because they could take advantage of the group’s supply-chain efficiencies.)

The Trusts Actions spokesman was also cynical about the chosen location of the four stores. They had been strategically positioned in affluent areas, where The Trusts tended to have less support (yesterday, Smale’s group shared UMR research – commissioned by The Trusts and released after an OIA request – that showed 56 per cent of respondents would vote for competition).

The average Westie would still be missing out, Smale said.

More broadly, “It’s not the bottle stores, it’s the dry supermarkets and lacklustre – or plain lack of – bars that’s the problem,” he said.

Pollard told the Herald more change was under way. The Liquorland deal represented a big culture shift, he said.

The Herald understands the decision came only after an animated board debate, with one person close to the action saying it was like Pollard “had asked to go to the South Pole”.

Trusts Action has been raising questions about The Trusts’ operation, its accountability, and the amount of profit it returns to the community. More on that debate, and The Trusts’ rebuttal, here.

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