Although alcohol policy involves complex possibilities and dilemmas, all countries with a more liberal sales structure than Norway have substantially higher per capita consumption - often as much as double. Greater use of alcohol carries higher costs in the form of ill-health and social damage. Vinmonopolet is accordingly an important instrument for making wine, spirits and strong beer available in a form acceptable for society and public health.
Eliminating the profit motive gives Vinmonopolet room to manoeuvre in meeting key social objectives, such as securing responsible social control of sales. As a retail chain, the company must operate with the emphasis on responsibility, service and cost-efficiency.
Vinmonopolet's social responsibility
Vinmonopolet operates today within the framework provided by the Vinmonopol Act and the 1989 Act on the Sale of Alcoholic Beverages (the Alcohol Act). The latter aims to limit the social and personal damage which alcohol can cause by restricting consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The company is second only to taxation among the government's instruments for reducing the social harm caused by alcohol. Norway's high level of alcohol taxes has come under heavy pressure, not least since Sweden reduced the equivalent duties. From a social policy perspective, cutting taxes would make it increasingly important to retain the existing controlled system for retailing wine, spirits and strong beer.
As in most other countries, Norway sets lower age limits for purchasing alcohol. This is because the risk of developing dependence increases the earlier a person begins drinking. Immature bodies also suffer greater damage from alcohol than adults, while the inexperience of young people and their desire to challenge boundaries expose them to acute injury and accidents under the influence of alcohol.
Vinmonopolet's staff are in direct contact with their customers, creating optimal conditions for exercising social control. The company runs constant campaigns to check the age of purchasers, and its staff are very aware of this requirement. A large number of young people are refused service every year because they cannot show valid proof of age. The same applies to people who are visibly drunk.
Although it can be difficult to prove the effectiveness of information campaigns and brochures, extensive use of such methods is likely to influence attitudes on alcohol consumption. This in turn has a preventive effect on alcohol-related problems. In that respect, Vinmonopolet plays a key role in shaping attitudes through its many efforts to explain the dangers of alcohol abuse. Such information is a natural and important part of providing full product details.
The Vinmonopolet arrangement is readily comprehensible. Law enforcement, supervising sales and making desired adjustments to alcohol policy are easy with today's system. Guidelines for the company's operations are defined by society's alcohol policy aims. The number of shops it can run is determined by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs through a national plan, which also specifies their distribution between the country's 19 counties. Within this framework, however, the final decision on shop locations is left to the Vinmonopolet board.
New shops provide better service and reduce illegal consumption
A good regional spread which ensures the best possible accessibility in all parts of the country is the target for Vinmonopolet's network of retail outlets.
This network consists of more than 300 shops. A larger number of outlets will make access to Vinmonopolet's products more equal around the country, and provide better service in the form of shorter queues in cities and towns.
More shops are also necessary to combat the consumption of alcohol acquired illegally. Opening additional Vinmonopolet outlets does not necessarily mean any significant rise in overall alcohol use. Studies by the National Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research (Sifa) into the opening of three shops in the western county of Sogn og Fjordane in 1991 show that overall alcohol consumption remained unchanged. But drinking habits altered - away from illegal spirits towards legally purchased wine.
On the other hand, privatising the sale of wine and spirits would allow these beverages to be sold in 4 - 5 000 shops around Norway. Experience from Finland and Sweden shows that an expansion in availability on this scale has serious negative consequences.
A unique product range
Vinmonopolet offers a unique range of roughly 17 000 different products today. The most popular of these are available in all its shops, while those not in stock at one outlet can be ordered without additional charge. This system allows the company to serve both the majority of its customers and the wine connoisseur.
Operations by Vinmonopolet are always neutral, in the sense that no favouritism is shown between brands, producers, countries or suppliers. Procurement is determined solely by price, quality and customer demand.
The present system of categorising the product range into basic, test, single lot, additional lists and order was established after Norway joined the EEA. It is intended to ensure that no player suffers any form of discrimination. The various product lists complement each other, giving Vinmonopolet's customers the widest possible choice.
All products offered for inclusion in the company's basic range are subject to quality control in the form of a blind tasting. These tests are carried out by a number of highly qualified tasters with both theoretical knowledge of and long experience with wine, spirits and strong beer. The decisive factors for Vinmonopolet's product selection are quality, ability to deliver and price. New entrants to the product range are assessed as having the best quality in their price class. Today's monopoly system accordingly represents a quality guarantee.
Wholesalers are shown the test documentation with the scores given by Vinmonopolet's tasters. If they refuse to accept this judgement, they can appeal to a special board appointed by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
Shops of varying size ensure rational operation
All Vinmonopolet's shops carry a broad selection of quality products. Their size is adapted to the local customer base, allowing them to be operated rationally and cost-effectively. Annual sales range from a million litres in the largest stores to less than 35 000 for the smallest.
Vinmonopolet smallest shops, so called category 1 shops, are small, with reduced product range adjusted to small sales in the districts.
These big differences in turnover also involve some variation in stocks. While the largest shops always carry at least 1 800 different products, the smallest primarily offer the most popular items - around 300 brands.
As a supplement to the shops Vinmonopolet opened in June 2002 a net-shop. This is a part of a multi-channel offer where the customer through a customer-service can order goods by phone, fax, e-mail or directly by the Internet. The goal is to increase availability, especially in the districts where shops are few, and to offer a more rightful offer of scares goods, and offer the wine-enthusiast a greater product range.
An average Vinmonopol shop carries about 900 different products at any given time. That means more than 95 per cent of customers can get what they want when they call in. Vinmonopolet must also satisfy the needs of those looking for something out of the ordinary. All other brands on its various product lists can therefore be ordered without extra charge, and are normally supplied in two-seven days. Deliveries in areas without a Vinmonopolet outlet are made to the local post office at no additional cost to the customer, outweighing the disadvantage of long distances.
No other retail solution could offer anything like the same array and quality of products nationwide. A supermarket, for instance, would only be able to provide shelf and storage space for a fraction of the range. In the longer term, only best-sellers would remain. Specialist stores could obviously be established - supplying Bordeaux wines, for instance - but their prices are likely to be higher than those charged by Vinmonopolet.
Vinmonopolet operates seven special shops; Aker Brygge and CC-Vest in Oslo, Hamar, Sandefjord, Sandnes Sentrum, Valentinlyst in Trondheim and Valkendorfsgaten in Bergen. In addition, Sandnes Kvadrat has a special beer assortment.
In addition to the ordinary product range these shops both offer a unique range containing around 750 products that are either innovative, limited availability or of an exceptionally high quality. The special shops are mostly aimed at customers with a particular interest in wine, members of wine clubs and customers who either have or are planning to establish their own wine cellar. Staff in these shops have particular expertise and can help customers with expert advice.
The special shops hold product launches on the first Thursday of every second month. We regret that we are unable to accept pre-orders or reserve products ahead of the launches. Lists of new products are published on www.vinmonopolet.no a few days before each launch.
Neutral and objective information
With several hundred new brands being introduced every year, providing customers with good product information represents a major challenge. Vinmonopolet is strongly committed to staff training in order to ensure a high level of professional expertise in its outlets. Its roughly 1 800 sales assistants must be able to satisfy the fundamental needs of customers for guidance and information. In addition, head office has a section staffed with specialists who can advise both customers and shops.
The main price list describes each product briefly and objectively. Vinmonopolet emphasises relevant and factual information, and its product descriptions are under constant development. Symbols in the price list indicate each brand's area of use and characteristics.