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Alko queues expected ahead of New Year as Covid restrictions bite

Finland is now more reliant than ever on its alcohol monopoly. 

Ihmisiä jonottamassa alkoon turvavälein Alkon ulkopuolella.
Alko stores are expected to be busier than usual this week. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Covid restrictions and difficulty crossing borders are combining to make this a bumper week for Finland's state-run alcohol monopoly, Alko.

The firm is expecting a million customers ahead of New Year as customers stock up. Bars are closing early and the traditional booze cruise to Tallinn is out of the question for most, so there is only one option for anyone in Finland looking for a bottle of bubbly to ring in the new year.

"There is a risk of queues building, especially on New Year's Eve and at the doors," said Tatu Vanninen of Alko.

"According to our prediction there will be just over a million customers visiting our stores this week. The busiest days for sales will be Wednesday and Thursday," explained Vanninen.

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Tatu Vanninen, Alkon aluepäällikkö
Alko's Tatu Vanninen says the company is expecting a busy week. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

Alko is planning to limit numbers in its stores at any one time and ask customers to respect physical distancing limits while queueing.

"At the doors there are staff advising people and counting numbers inside," said Vanninen. "Customers will not be given masks, but there will be hand sanitiser available and there is plexiglass at the checkouts."

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Kö till alkoholhandel i Uleåborg efter kriget 12.12.1994.
In 1944 all alcohol outlets were closed for three months because of the war. The picture shows the queues when they reopened in Oulu on 12.12.1944. Image: ALKO / Sanomalehti Kalevan arkisto

Previous peaks in alcohol demand at Midsummer and May Day have gone relatively smoothly, according to Vanninen.

"There have been queues in places, but we avoided the worst congestion," said Vanninen. "Thanks to our customers, demand has been spread over previous days more evenly this year. We hope for the same this week."

Alko's crazy year

Alko has been one of the big winners of the pandemic, in retail terms. Sales are up 12 percent to November, thanks partly to restrictions on travel and opening hours for bars and restaurants.

This has reversed a decade-long decline in sales for the company, which is the only licensed retailer of stronger drinks.

The last time Alko increased sales was in 2007, with a steady reduction since then. The worst year for Alko was 2018, when a new law opened up the rules to allow supermarkets to sell slightly stronger drinks.

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Alko sales 2016–2020.
Image: Tommi Pylkkö / Yle

By November Alko had already sold more than in 2018 altogether. Rose, white and red wines have done particularly well in 2020.

The peak for sparkling wines and champagne is expected this week, with Alko forecasting sales at four times the level of a normal winter week for those products.

Even so, Alko is not likely to get close to the peak year of 2007. Then the company sold the equivalent of some 113.5 million litres of pure alcohol. This year it is expected to hit around 90 million litres.

Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

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