Island Life by David Slack

Where everyone gets a bourbon.

A long time ago, longer ago, even, than the day New Zealand's first FM radio station got to air, I had a job in a bottle store. Every day was a party. We had low, low prices. People would drive across five suburbs for our special on a half gallon bottle of gin. Whenever we ran our Jim Beam special, you could stack them high and watch them fly. Only God knows just how many households in the Aro Valley would tote home the bourbon and coke and load Free Bird or Bad to the Bone onto the turntable.

Our store was something of a rebel in the liquor business. It was a highly regulated industry. If you had a liquor licence, you were in quite a cosy position. It would be overstating things, but not by very much, to say that there was something of a cartel in effect. Prices were more or less ordained by the Hotel Association, and a member who priced their product below the prescribed prices could expect a bit of grief.

Deregulating the industry, which happened towards the end of the eighties, was intended to give anyone the opportunity to compete in the business. The various vested interests were all aghast, but in practice, it wasn't DB or Lion or any of the big liquor distributors who took the biggest hit. It was your humble pub which found itself competing with a wide and varied choice of bars, cafes and clubs. And as if that wasn't hard enough to swallow, they also saw their bottle store trade slowly drift away to the new off licenses and then, a few years further down the track, to the supermarkets.

Did this change unleash a wave of drunken debauchery? No. You might even argue that a proliferation of smaller bars has diminished some of the anonymity of drinking in booze barns that enabled antisocial behaviour.

As for the greater access to alcohol - all-on, any hour or day of the week, does that mean we're drinking more? Certainly not beer - that's levelled out, and the breweries have compensated by switching us to brands that cost more and come in bottles that contain less. Wine, though is a different story. We're drinking more of that. And that alcopop crap has made one or two New Zealanders remarkably wealthy. If there was one aspect of the business that you might be especially inclined to worry about, I'd say it was that one. The kids love it, and they pile into it, with some unfortunate consequences.

And that's just the market segment that seems a natural fit for the Warehouse, should it choose to expand into the liquor market as it seems poised to do. Cheap, low quality, but fulfilling a need. That describes your typical alcopop and your bourbon and coke and can segment pretty neatly, and of course it describes vast aisles worth of the stuff you can buy at the Warehouse.

I may have been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name.

Last night's news took us on a tour of the new Warehouse premises in Te Rapa and even gave us a look at their new TV ad. They're making themselves over and moving ever-so-slightly up-market. I don't know, in Kevin Roberts' terminology, if the Warehouse is a Lovemark so much as a stretch mark, but it does seem to have fulfilled his prescription for becoming a brand to which people are so attached that it can earn itself a fairly softball news report on its marketing strategy.

There's nothing unusual about marketing that gives a slightly rosier tinge to its product than it possesses in real life, and to be fair to the Warehouse, this makeover seems to be pretty carefully contrived to make only small style improvements. What you see and what you get will still be largely in step, by the look of things.

For a truly egregious example of the advertising diverging from reality, those Sky City ads would be hard to beat. Somehow the happy, photogenic family tableau of a fun night out at the casino just fails to capture the grim joylessness of the place and the quiet desperation that lies behind the resigned and sullen faces of the rows upon rows of Aucklanders sitting at their pokie machines.

Jus' be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they'll be nice to you.

I'm not especially troubled by the notion of the Warehouse having beer and wine a few aisles along from the plastic toys. I suppose I'd be troubled if they were doing the country's best price on alcopops and other teen liquor bait. But the line I would draw would come at the next step: pokies. That might well complete the circle, but at what cost? Put in the pokies at the Warehouse and what would those still-surviving old pubs have left?