I had occasion to visit one of Sweden’s state-run liquor stores today, and for the first time since moving here I didn’t feel like a criminal on parole while buying a bottle of wine.
I guess I don’t buy alcohol often enough to get too bent out of shape over the taxes, but it does bug me that I can’t buy a decent bottle of wine or a six pack of beer at the grocery store while I’m actually planning a dinner party or cookout. Instead it’s a separate trip to a special store with terrible business hours … all of which contributes to a “hoard” mentality. Consequently there is WAY more booze in my home here in Sweden than there ever was in the U.S., where it’s essentially available for sale around the clock.
Systembolaget has undergone something of an “Extreme Makeover” the last year or so, due mostly I think, to pressure from EU trade policies. The Swedish government is clinging desperately to its monopoly on alcohol sales, but has lowered taxes a bit in the face of plunging sales. Swedes know that they can get a lot more booze for their kronor in Denmark and Germany, so much so that it’s worth making regular road-trips to stock up.
But the worst part about dealing with Systembolaget was the set-up of the shops. A single bottle of each type of wine or spirit available for sale was displayed in a glass case with its own unique number, and you battled the crowd to search the cases and wrote down the numbers of the items you wanted before getting into an interminably long queue to present your list to a clerk, who then gathered up the “evil fire water” from the store room.
Now, in an effort to be a little more consumer-friendly, virtually all of the shops have been (or are in the process of being) converted to regular retail-style stores, with wide aisles that customers can browse before selecting their own booze directly from the shelves. For Swedes, I’m guessing it’s quite a liberating (and decadent) experience that lasts right up until they have to stand in an interminably long queue to pay for it.