One of the most bizarre things about life in Sweden is the Swede’s attitude to alcohol. This is illustrated even more by the government’s attitude and the fact that there is a monopoly on alcohol sales. William Simons explains more about Systembolaget.
There is only one place to buy wines and spirits in Sweden and that’s a government run monopoly called Systembologet. Getting your head around this strange system is a founding principle in being integrated to Swedish life. It is by no means logical or easy to understand why the state don’t trust their citizens to buy alcohol from say a supermarket or petrol station, but be rest assured, with every debate on alcohol there are a multitude of “doom predictors” foretelling stories of children being left at home whilst their father is unconscious in a gutter.
Before taking out my wit-sharpened knife and cutting Systembolaget to shreds, let’s look at the positives. In my local Systembolaget, I can go up to any member of staff, tell them I have x of my hard-earned kronor to spend and that I’m having lamb tonight – what do you recommend? They will be able to come up with a half dozen selections in my price range and all will match my dinner superbly. If I want to try a whisky that my Systembolaget doesn’t stock, I can simply order a bottle at my branch and it will be delivered free of charge in the next couple of days. I have to tell you that this makes my job as a writer on wines and whiskies much easier. Can you get this service from a European supermarket? Their homepage is also fantastic, with a database of the finest wines and spirits known to humanity – all with tasting notes and detailed information pertaining to originality and variety.
One thing that a Systembolaget beginner has to get their head around is that Systembolaget is not there to sell alcohol. Their one and only mission in life is to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol. Well that’s all right then, close the doors and turn the lights off and don’t sell alcohol then. Errrrr no, unfortunately Systembolaget contributes so much to the Swedish coffers that in reality the government can’t live without them. Through the 2000’s Systembolaget contributed between 100 -120 million kronor per year to the state and in one year these nice people threw 200 million the state’s way! That’s 200 million reasons to keep the monopoly. The not selling of alcohol policy continues inside the store with Systembolget’s marketing – or lack of it. There are no special offer signs, no buy two – get one free deals and no free glasses when you buy a special bottle. The only adverts in the store are signs warning of the dangers of consuming what you’re about to buy.
Of course I’m a joy to sit next to at dinner parties and the one time every decennium that I’m invited out, the conversation often turns to Systembolaget and why we can’t just get rid of it. Along with the 200 million reasons I’ve already mentioned, there is always the argument that (a) there would never be the range if privatized and (b) a private enterprise would never buy in as much and therefore it wouldn’t be cheaper. What utter rubbish! When I point out that most supermarkets are the masters of negotiation and wheeling and dealing and that competition always brings down price, the next line of defence often turns to the “Swedes can’t be trusted to buy their own alcohol” argument. But what makes a Swede’s attitude to alcohol different from say a German or Brit? Systembolaget of course the Swede’s “lördags godis” attitude to life.