The Swedish Way of Selling Booze is a Little Different
A bottle-o in Sweden doesn’t look like anything you’re probably used to. From one end of the nation to the other, their aesthetic hardly varies. The only advertising around the store encourages you not to drink. Or at least to seriously consider the lighter option. It asks you you to ponder the effects alcohol might have on your athletic training, or presents some alcohol-related statistic, or reminds you that the glass of wine you drink to settle your anxiety isn’t going to stop it coming back Everything is neatly, individually stacked at around eye-level and nothing is favoured or particularly stands-out. The lighting is bright and sterile, like some sort of weird amalgamation of a hospital and an ALDI. There are no ad-ons, no mixers and no drinking snacks. And all products are sold at room temperature, because cold drinks “might encourage spontaneous purchases”.
Selling alcohol in this giant, Scandinavian nation is strictly regulated. All beverages above 3.5% can only be purchased in the state-owned liquor store chain, SystemBolaget. There are no other options. It’s like a Centerlink for booze. Brought about by a complicated history with alcohol abuse and distribution, and the recognition of its severe detriment to society, the Swedish solution is unlike any other, prioritising public health over an extremely profitable industry. All products are taxed on alcohol content rather than price, which means that even ‘cheap’ hard liquor is damn expensive. The stores nation-wide close at 3pm on Saturday and close completely on Sunday . Walk past a window after opening hours and the shopfronts are boarded up and dark. Nothing might instil the desire to buy something another time or even suggest that alcohol exists just beyond the glass. And you really have to plan ahead for a backyard Sunday sesh.
As an Australian, I’m used to the idea that alcohol is a commodity much like any other in terms of reasonable marketing, upselling and promoting. Advertisements back home make the products seem enticing or encourage bulk buying, as long as an enjoy responsibly is written somewhere on the label. Enter any of the privatised liquor stores and your peripherals are bombarded by signs emblazoned with things like: the four best foamies for the footy or this week’s top special or 3 x Sunnyvale Fruity Lexia for $33. That does seem like an excessive amount of goon.
No one can deny that Australia has a binge-drinking culture, or that drinking is a part of most of our day-to-day lives. But mostly I accepted it and never truly understood the societal implications of how the liquor was sold and advertised. After having lived in Sweden, it began to seem ethically wrong to encourage people during their bottle-o visit to purchase more alcohol than what they had already intended. An extra bottle of wine isn’t like a side of fries. A recent SystemBolaget advertising campaign poked fun at the American, consumerist approach to selling product. The American “retail expert” loudly and crassly lists marketing techniques to the SystemBolaget staff, who calmly reject each one. It isn’t hard to see that Swedes are proud of the system they have developed and consider it to be somewhat superior.
I showed my Swedish boyfriend some of the websites of the major Australian liquor sellers. The garish colours and eye-catching promotions did seem quite confronting, even to me now. He seemed genuinely shocked when I told him that, in Australia, there are such things as ‘Drive-Thru’ bottle shops and that when I go to buy alcohol, I make a beeline to the walk-in fridges where I can save a few bucks buying 24 beers. And when I explained how my friends and I would take an Esky full of beers into a BYO Vietnamese restaurant in the heart of Brisbane and binge drink until we were ready to party, the look on his face made me wonder if he thought Australians were all insane. In our first week of living together, he jokingly called me an alcoholic for having a glass of wine with my dinner. Whilst not exactly uncommon, drinking during the week is generally frowned upon and considered unnecessary. SystemBolaget and its surrounding ideas has not only attempted to control the consumption of alcohol, it has also influenced the attitude towards it.
My younger brother works at reasonably fancy bottle-o in Melbourne. I knew when he got the job he knew very little about wines and his knowledge of brewskies didn’t span much further than Coopers. That if someone had asked him what to have with their baked fish for dinner, he might have bluffed his way through it and sent them home with a red wine. Staff at SystemBolaget are well trained and brand neutral which is pretty impressive considering its diverse range of products. Every wine tag has a detailed description of how it should be best enjoyed and savoured, detailed flavour profiling and alcohol content. Some are more expensive than others, but nothing is “cheap.” What they’re really trying to push is thoughtful, educated consideration on product selection, rather than to direct sales in a certain way or towards a particular product.
“We want to inspire people to take an interest in what they drink and to focus on health and quality rather than quantity… Our conviction is – the more people know, the better they will handle alcohol.”
– SystemBolaget’s online mission statement
Where there is something preventing an open market on a good readily available elsewhere, naturally, people find a way to get around it. I recently visited some Swedish friends who were about to get married. They told me how they had simply “driven to Denmark” to purchase alcohol supplies for the party. It is so common that stores on the Danish side of Oresund Bridge (the crossing point from Denmark to Sweden) promote and sell alcohol in Swedish. Two night “booze cruises” run frequently between Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn or Riga, stopping in either one for around eight hours, before returning. You could use this to enjoy the sunset over Stockholm’s archipelago or to delight in a foreign city for a small price. But many of the Swedes queuing to board carry giant, empty suitcases and give away an ulterior motive. Tax-free, cheap alcohol. By midnight, the number of people taking advantage of that fact on the ship’s only D-floor makes it pretty clear the intention is not really to get up early and see the city the following morning.
It’s undeniable that this way of vending alcohol is beneficial to society. SystemBolaget is a good thing. But I still can’t work out if I actually like it or not. Would I be happy if Australia implemented a similar idea? The humanitarian inside me says definitely. The alcohol statistics in Sweden speak for themselves. But another part of me says no. It can seem a little excessive, propaganda-like and oppressive. I feel a little sheepish as I lay 10 beers on the check-out conveyor belt. I miss being able to choose which wine I’m going to have out at a restaurant, or sipping a cold beer that I just bought at the beach. It doesn’t mean I’m going to abuse it and it doesn’t mean I’m an alcoholic or will become one. Bottle shops selling snacks and cheeses aren’t encouraging me to drink more; I might buy something to enjoy with what I’m drinking and even to add to the enjoyment of the flavour. Salted peanuts never hurt anyone. And wasn’t that a part of what SystemBolaget was all about?
Cover by Tom Sodoge