How my Systembolaget fail took Sweden's unyielding rules to the next level

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
How my Systembolaget fail took Sweden's unyielding rules to the next level

Sweden's alcohol monopoly remains one of the country's most trusted institutions but there are myriad rules that can surprise even those well-versed in Swedish bureaucracy, as The Local's Catherine Edwards learned the hard way.


To an outsider the concept of Sweden's state-run alcohol monopoly Systembolaget, literally 'the System Company', is bizarre. The only shop allowed to sell alcohol (over 3.5 percent ABV) for home consumption has the explicit goal and government mandate to reduce alcohol consumption.

Some of the ways they do this, like a ban on discounts for buying larger volumes, seem logical; others... less so.

Most shops offer leaflets about drinking responsibly, but also how to mix cocktails or create food and wine pairings, as if the real message is 'go on, have a drink if you want to but just please don't have the red wine with fish'.


I don't pretend to understand its enduring popularity, but over five years in Sweden I thought I'd got to grips with the quirks of Systemet.

Even though I rarely drink at home, I've learned to keep spare bottles of wine in the house for spontaneous weekend dinner invitations (in non-Covid times) after being caught out by the early closing on Saturday in my first months here. I know that I need to bring a drink cooler bag for summer picnics, since alcohol cannot be sold chilled for fear of encouraging its immediate consumption.

But in the world of Swedish alcohol policy, there's always something new to learn. 

With many people avoiding bars and restaurants, and limits on the number of customers allowed in shops, queues at Systembolaget's stores are larger than usual. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT


In November, a colleague was unable to order a whisky advent calendar because of Swedish laws that forbid marketing to connect alcohol with Christmas (with exceptions made for beer, mulled wine or the extremely strong snaps). 

And last Monday I ordered from Systembolaget for the first time, preparing for a January treat after almost a year of avoiding indoor bars and restaurants.

Home delivery in itself is a relatively new development, and is currently only available in a minority of Sweden's regions. But it seemed like a responsible choice allowing me to avoid both the 15-minute slushy walk to the shop and the possibility of crowding inside.

I chose the earliest available delivery slot: 5-8pm on Friday. With a delivery of groceries from Ica scheduled for the morning, and plans to cook an anniversary dinner using the newly arrived food and wine, it was the busiest my calendar had been in weeks. 


The day came and all was proceeding as normal. An email from Systembolaget and a text from the delivery company assured me my order was on the way and would be delivered shortly. A map showed the progress of the lorry in real time, counting down the number of deliveries left to go until informing me 'You're the next stop!' 

When the phone call came at 8.01pm, at first I thought I had misunderstood the driver when he apologised and said he was unable to make the delivery. 

After all, the map showed that the lorry had reached my road. I went to the window, expecting to see him turn the corner, and asked if he needed me to repeat the door code to enter the building.

"Some earlier deliveries ran late and now I can't deliver yours today because it's after 8pm. It's against the law. I have to take it back to the warehouse," he said.

"But you're outside the building?" So close and yet so far.

"Sorry, I could lose my job if I deliver now, it's against the law," the driver repeated.

Naturally I took to Twitter to share my bafflement, and only one person said it was my own fault for not being sufficiently Swedish to order at least a full week in advance. Others commiserated: "Fredagsmys is ruined!"

A new coronavirus law bans the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants after 8pm to limit crowding, but a call on Saturday morning to Systembolaget's customer service confirmed that it wasn't this law that cancelled my delivery.

The general law on alcohol sales meant that pandemic or no pandemic, at one minute past 8pm the box couldn't be brought to my door.

Never mind the fact that I'd placed the order on Monday evening (around 7pm, although you can place online orders at any time) and the money had left my account immediately.

In fact, home delivery can only happen between the precise hours that the stores are allowed to open: 10am - 8pm on weekdays, and 9am - 3pm on Saturdays. So if your order runs late, you have to wait until the next available delivery slot.

My order arrived on Monday at the state-sanctioned time of 12.55 – the drinks even came chilled, thanks to their weekend in a warehouse and a dip in the temperatures.

But a word of warning to anyone hoping to get home delivery: choose the morning slot if you can, order drinks to arrive a few days before you need them, and always expect the unexpected when it comes to Swedish bureaucracy.


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