Your friendly government liquor store.
In Sweden, state control of everyday life is taken for granted. Social responsibility is a matter of national pride. The alcohol laws are one of the more conspicuous examples of this. If you were to look in a shop or supermarket for alcohol you would find yourself disappointed, because the state has a monopoly of all retail sales of drinks that have more than 3.5% ABV. In order to buy your booze, you need to take a trip to a Systembolaget (literally "system company"): the government-owned stores which sell all the alcohol. Through these stores, the government can control the type and quantities of drink sold, as well when and how they buy it and in what environment. They do not advertise or promote particular brands, and are at pains to point out that they will never encourage customers to buy more than they intended. They also strictly enforce the age limit for the purchase of alcohol: they will require ID from anyone who could conceivably be under 20, the minimum age for using the stores. Not only this, but anyone who accompanies you into a store can also be asked for ID, and if they are under 20 the store will refuse to serve any of you.
The first precursor to Systembolaget was set up in 1865 when a group of mine owners set up a system to control the high levels of alcohol consumption among their workers. Eventually this was adopted nationwide and enshrined in law. From 1919 until 1954 there was also alcohol rationing in place throughout the country. Another absurd system was in place from 1963-1977, which became known as the red lamp era. During this period, cash registers in Systembolagen were fitted with red lamps that would turn on a certain times. If this happened, the customer would have to show ID, which the cashier would then check against a blacklist of known or suspected alcoholics. This gross restriction of civil liberties was utterly ineffective in lowering alcohol consumption, so was abandoned at the same time that medium strength beer was banned from sale in grocery stores.
In 1995, Sweden joined the European Union, which had several profound effects on its alcohol laws. The state ceased to hold a monopoly on the import of liquor, so now other companies may register as importers that supply the Systembolagen. Membership of the EU is continuing to change the system, as I will expand upon below.
One of the most annoying things about the system is the restricted opening times. The stores are not open in the evenings, nor on Sundays and it was only recently that they started opening on Saturdays.
- Shopping centre stores: 10am - 7pm
- Other stores: 10am - 6pm
City-centre stores are also open to 7pm on Thursdays, and some of the larger stores stay open until 8pm on some nights.
- Shopping centre stores: 10am - 2pm
- Other stores: 10am - 1pm
Some larger stores stay open until 3pm.
So, plan your party early if you don't want to have to make do with the low alcohol beer and cider that is all other stores can sell.
The 415 Systembolaget stores need to stock a wide range of drinks, as they sell every kind of wine, spirit and proper beer that you can buy in Sweden. Most stores don't stock the entire range, which is over 2 500 lines, but in general they have more variety than you'd find in regular stores in other countries. The choice of what is included in the range is a powerful one, giving them an effective veto over what drinks are available in Sweden. Because of this they have an elaborate system of oversight to try to ensure that this is done fairly. International market research is done to try and keep track of new trends, and this is used to produce general, long-term product plans. Based on this, importers are invited to submit tenders to the government for products that they would like the stores to stock. After assessing the tendered products on various criteria, the final decision as to what to stock is made using a blind tasting by Systembolaget staff. Rejected tenders are allowed to appeal, which involves consulting a customer panel. Once a product is available, its sales are monitored and it may be delisted if it is not popular enough. This whole complicated process is shown below.
- Product plan
- Invitation to tender
- Tender assessment
- Launch plan
- Characterisation testing
- Journalist tasting
- Sales statistics
- Consideration for possible delisting
Most stores are counter service. Upon entering, you take a ticket like in the tax office or deli and wait until your number is called. At busy times this can be a long wait. You can use your time to look through the catalogue that lists all the products in the range and write your choice on the order slip. Alternatively you can wait and discuss your order with the staff, who are trained to advise on the range (though taking care to not encourage you to buy more, of course).
As a foreigner with virtually no knowledge of Swedish, my first trip to Systembolaget was a little daunting. My 19 year old Swedish friend had to wait outside, lest she be asked for ID, so any hope of moral support was gone. As it was a quiet time of day, I didn't have to wait long to be called, and of course, as with almost everyone in the country, the cashier spoke good English. After inspecting my ID, he checked my list and told me that most of my chosen drinks were not available. He was, however, able to recommend good alternatives, and went off with his trolley to pick my order. The prices were high, of course, but not too much higher than in my home country, which is also blessed with high alcohol taxation. Subsequest trips to self-service Systembolaget were much more welcoming.
Times are changing with Systembolaget. Although the European Court of Justice ruled in 1997 that the system was legal and compatible with EU rules, its future has never been more uncertain. In 2004 Sweden's exemption from standard import quotas will expire, and Swedes will enjoy the same freedoms to bring in alcohol from abroad as the rest of the EU's citizens do. "Booze cruises" similar to those made by Brits to France and Belgium will become common, as people load up vans with alcohol abroad and bring them home for their own use. This legal trade will also help expand the current illegal smuggling operations, which are already very widespread. According to Swedish government surveys in October 2001, only 40% of spirits consumed in the country are properly accounted for. The rest are likely to have been brought in from abroad, whether legally or illegally. Duties on wine were cut in December 2001, but are still the highest in the EU (the UK is second highest), so the motives for smuggling are high. This shows that the Systembolagen are not succeeding in their aim to control the consumption of alcohol by Swedes. If they want to regain control of the market, and thus supply, they would need to cut prices drastically. The EU has put considerable pressure on the Swedish government to do this, as the status quo is at odds with the Union's aims to harmonise tariffs across the countries. However, if prices were cut, it would remove one of the main reasons for Systembolaget's existence, which is the retention of high prices to control demand.
Systembolaget is keen to modernise itself. It is converting many of its stores to a more modern self-service style, but as experiments with this have led to an increase in sales it is being done cautiously. Another modernising move is in response to public pressure. Tentative trials are being held in the supply of alcohol by mail, with an e-commerce facility for ordering. This does, however, remove much of the control over the sale that is so closely guarded by the system. It remains to be seen whether Systembolaget can modernise itself suffiently to survive, or will go the way of the red lamp and Swedes will start to be treated as adults.