April 28th, 2009

Dépanneurs Beyond the Beer Ads

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Dépanneur

I’ve long been fascinated by dépanneurs, the ubiquitous Montreal convenience store that are usually owner-operated and ramshackle in appearance. They’re an integral part of life in Montreal—most people visit them at least once or twice a day for beer, milk, lotto tickets, cigarettes or a snack—and they occupy a vital place in the social and economic spheres of a neighbourhood. More than that, however, they are a microcosm of much broader trends, including immigration policies and the Quebec government’s attempt to protect homegrown retail.

Dépanneurs are subject to a heavier regulatory load than convenience stores in other parts of North America. Cigarette taxes are high, beer is subject to a minimum price of $2.73 per litre and alcohol cannot be sold after 11pm, for example. There is justification behind these regulations: cigarette taxes line government pockets and ostensibly dissuade people from smoking; minimum beer prices prevent supermarkets from undercutting dépanneurs and laws on store opening hours are meant to protect small retailers from chains. Although the continued abundance of survival of dépanneurs in Montreal is a direct result of government intervention in the retail sector—the law on beer prices is one of many designed to protect neighbourhood deps from supermarkets—some laws and regulations have unintended consequences.

Here’s one example: international cigarette smuggling. As cigarette taxes have risen, Mohawk entrepreneurs have taken advantage of their special right to unrestricted cross-border trade and movement to import large amounts of Mohawk-made cigarettes from the United States to Canada, which are then sold illegally to non-natives through shops on reserves and in Montreal dépanneurs, some of which sell black-market cigarettes despite the risk of harsh penalties. Some brands of American-made Mohawk cigarettes have become so popular that counterfeit versions are now being made on reserves in Quebec.

Similarly, immigration policies have had an unintended impact on Montreal’s dépanneurs. Many professionals who immigrate to Canada from overseas face high barriers to entry into the workforce. Dépanneurs are a popular alternative to menial labour, since they are relatively inexpensive to buy and offer a decent living in exchange for long hours of monotonous, solitary work. The vast majority of Montreal dépanneurs are now run by immigrants, most of them recent arrivals from Asia, which has led to increased competition among deps, but more innovation, too. In immigrant-rich neighbourhoods, many deps now double as ethnic supermarkets, selling Indian spices and Chinese vegetables alongside Quebec beer.

Perhaps most interestingly, the very laws that are meant to protect and nourish dépanneurs have inadvertently helped create one of the world’s largest convenience store chains. Couche-Tard got its start suburban Montreal, where it was able to exploit such policies as a minimum price on beer to win market share from large supermarkets and expand rapidly through the province’s rural and suburban areas. With the indirect help of the Quebec government, which offers incentives to Quebec-based businesses, Couche-Tard has now become the second-largest convenience store chain the world, with brands such as Mac’s in Canada and Circle K in the United States and Asia.

Dépanneur


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