Businessman Oleg Gross' tug of war with the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) on the topic of whether or not alcohol may be displayed on shelves behind grocery store cashiers is to culminate Wednesday in a fast-tracked amendment that is a concession to the businessman. It will have taken just a week to amend the law, as the legislation in question reached the Riigikogu last Tuesday and is scheduled for its final vote this Thursday already.
According to current legislation, alcoholic beverages may not be placed in stores in such a way that consumers cannot avoid coming in contact with them while shopping. Excepted from this rule are very small stores, where hiding alcoholic beverages from view would be unreasonable due to store size.
"This so-called concept of reasonableness granted officials such an opportunity, but we know that officials aren't reasonable," OG Elektra owner Oleg Gross told ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera." "They interpret this concept of reasonableness as they please."
As a result, Gross believes this principle of reasonableness should be removed from the legislation in question altogether.
The TTJA has issued precepts to 22 Grossi stores according to which alcohol located behind the cashier should be relocated elsewhere. The businessman is sure, however, that such precepts don't correspond to the real point of the Alcohol Act.
"The legislators' point was not that goods located behind the counter, behind the cashier is direct contact; direct contact is when someone walks directly by it," Gross said, explaining his understanding of the Alcohol Act.
"The Consumer Protection Authority is so much on our case that we can't breathe," he continued. "It's one letter after another; the first intimidating letter following the coronavirus came on June 1 again. It's just mind-boggling how 'eager' and 'good' they are."
According to Gross, pressure from the consumer protection watchdog was so intense that he was forced to convert one store in Central Tallinn into a liquor store. He noted, however, that at that particular store, it wouldn't have been possible to better conceal alcoholic beverages from shoppers' view without suspending them from the ceiling.
It would be possible to rearrange the placement of hard liquor in the grocery store-turned-liquor store too, TTJA's Consumer Environment Department director Jaana Tael said, but the store owner isn't interested, citing shoplifting concerns.
Tael said that it often isn't the size of the store that is an issue, but rather the fact that the only working register is located by shelves of alcoholic beverages. As people have no other choice when it comes to paying for their other goods, then this becomes a violation of the Alcohol Act.
The smaller the store, however, the more lenient officials are, she added.
"If our officials note that there really is no possibility of rearranging things there, then all we require is that alcohol is kept separate from non-alcoholic goods, and that is actually entirely sufficient," she explained. "If you have a room-sized store, then I see no reason why anything more should be done than they already have."
Small store owners' are set to see relief from these concerns this week already, as a change was added to the local government crisis measures bill according to which officials will be stripped of their discretion and shelves of alcoholic beverages may be located behind cash registers. According to Aivar Kokk (Isamaa), chairman of the Finance Committee which proposed tucking the change into the completely unrelated bill, everything is proper.
"Prior to the second reading, it's possible to propose changes to all laws," Kokk explained. "If there is a bill that has been talked about at length to most parliamentary groups, that such a concern exists, then at some point these concerns will be addressed too, and why not do so today?"
According to the committee chairman, letters have been received regarding this issue beginning last July already, and by now there is no reason to talk of hiding an amendment in another law.
"This is not a new issue; it has been discussed before," he said. "There always comes a time when a law is passed. It doesn't happen that you snap your fingers today and the law is there tomorrow. Things are discussed between various parties, and it was found that such a solution was the best." He added that the law is in fact becoming stricter now, as buyers will no longer be permitted to duck behind the counter to grab bottles, as was previously allowed by law.
While the request to amend the law reached the Finance Committee in the form of an appeal by the Estonian Small Retailers Association to the Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities, all traders beyond Gross have since gotten on board with the change.
Gross had ordered additional shelving for his grocery store-turned-liquor store, but now these extra shelves will likely go unused, as he is sure that these changes will be passed Wednesday. The law would step into force ten days following its passing.
Until now, officials who have been inspecting the adherence of alcohol displays in stores for nearly a year now have given stores until year's end to bring things up to code. A few weeks from now, however, the work they've done thus far will all have been for naught.
"In that sense it's simple — we are involved in the oversight of legal compliance, and if the law calls for something else going forward, then we will act accordingly," Tael said.
Editor: Aili Vahtla