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FedEx: Update on Direct to Consumer Shipping

As you may have read here recently, FedEx recently announced that it was implementing a new "direct purchase" system so that consumers in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario could order wine direct from U.S. wineries and have it delivered to their homes or businesses following payment of applicable liquor board markups/fees/taxes. The FedEx announcement was exciting for Canadian wine consumers because it seemed to indicate a new era of more open wine purchasing (albeit with rather steep fees in B.C.). Regrettably, it appears that FedEx did not obtain regulatory approval for this system in B.C. before announcing it (at least that's what the LCLB tells me). As such, it is unclear whether FedEx will be able to proceed with their plans in B.C. or in the other provinces.

However, this story highlights the major problems with Canada's wine shipping laws and policies. Here is a summary of the regulatory mess that we currently have.

Shipments Entirely Within a Province. Provinces such as B.C. and Ontario, which have wine industries, currently permit their own wineries to ship directly to customers but only within the same province (i.e. B.C. wineries can ship to B.C. customers but not to Ontario customers).

Shipments Between Provinces. The liquor boards in Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta have recently threatened British Columbia wineries with "criminal enforcement" action under an archaic 1928 prohibition-era statute which prohibits the shipment of wine between provinces. As a result, B.C. wineries are unable to legally ship Canadian wine to the majority of Canadian wine lovers.

Shipments From Outside Canada. Wine lovers in B.C. are currently able to order wine from outside Canada and have it sent to them. However, upon arrival in B.C., the shipment will be held at Customs until the customer clears the shipment with the BCLDB. This is a cumbersome and expensive process under which the customer will be required to pay all of the various LDB fees, markups and taxes (which will be applied to the full retail price of the wine). One person who recently went through this process told me it was "nightmarish" - it took him hours to get the necessary paperwork right including multiple personal trips to Customs and the LDB. However, once all the money is paid, the wine will be released. I understand that there are similar processes in other provinces (although in Alberta, for example, the fees are much, much lower).

Wine Imported by Travellers. Consumers can also personally bring wine back with them from outside Canada if they do so while travelling (i.e. if you drive down to the U.S., you can bring wine back with you). As most people are aware, there is a miserly duty-free allowance of 2 bottles (750ml) per person. After that, you will have to pay liquor board fees based on the province into which you are bringing the wine. See "Bringing Wine Back to Canada After a Trip" for more info.

It appears that the FedEx "direct purchase" system is a streamlined version of the process described above for "Shipments From Outside Canada". Basically, FedEx is trying to lessen the regulatory burden by taking care of some of the paperwork and then delivering the wine directly to you once it is cleared. This seems to be a sensible goal. At first glance, one would think that nobody would care about this since the relevant government (liquor board) is getting all of its money. However, the system poses problems for the liquor boards because they are still taking the position that Canadian wineries can't ship directly at all. It doesn't look too good when U.S. wineries can ship and Canadian wineries cannot.

However, the underlying problem remains. For U.S. wineries, the liquor boards have effectively permitted a direct delivery system so long as the consumer agrees to pay the applicable fees and puts up with the cumbersome process (FedEx was just trying to make it easier). However, for Canadian wineries, the liquor boards have rejected their overtures to set up a similar reporting system and have instead relied on IILA to stop inter-provincial direct to consumer shipments completely.

Legally, I find this fascinating because there are no exemptions in IILA for shipments where the purchaser intends to pay the markups/taxes. Theoretically, the level of legality or illegality under IILA is the same if a consumer brings or ships wine across an international border versus an interprovincial border. The collection of markups/taxes at the border is a separate legal issue from the shipping prohibition in IILA. The practical reality has been that the liquor boards have allowed the international shipments because they have a way of enforcing the tax/markup collection at customs. Of course, they have no mechanism for guaranteeing that a customer pays the markups for an interprovincial shipment so they have tried to stop those completely.

This quagmire is all about the money. Isn't it about time we sorted it out?