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New Horizons Q&A: John Colley, Majestic Wine

Published:  03 December, 2020

The year 2020 will surely go down in history as an annus horribilis. With an end game to the coronavirus in sight however – and a vaccine looming on the 2021 horizon – Harpers is choosing to take the optimistic view that things can only get better from here. 

With that in mind, we’ve been speaking to some of the business leaders who have endured the ups and downs of 2020, asking them to cast an eye in the rear view mirror before soldiering on to a new year and a clean slate.

We kick off our series with an in depth look at Majestic Wine via CEO, John Colley. 

Given this year’s struggles, from Covid to Brexit, what are your three predictions for the next 12 months?

We’ll keep discovering. One of the big features of this year has been the eagerness of our customers to embrace something new, with marked sales of the new range we’ve created at Majestic. For me, I think this has been due to being unable to get out and explore as readily as would like, and so wine has become our escapism. I certainly think with a difficult start to 2021 predicted, we’ll be as eager to continue pushing boundaries on our wine racks even if we can’t get out of our homes. 

Tastings will be back! It may be a bit soon to predict this, but with the hopeful implementation of a vaccine and more of us getting out and about, I expect tastings to be big in 2021 as we all remember the joy of discovering wine together once more. There’s certainly a lot of pent up demand to see our tasting counter and events back in action at Majestic. We hope to have a few new Majestic stores ready in 2021 for them to do just that too!

English Wine is here to stay. We’ve been talking about it for years, but 2020 feels like a real watershed moment for our homegrown wine industry. At Majestic, we’ve seen growth of over 150% like for like this year, and I expect Christmas to really put the cherry on the top of such a successful year for English wine. That momentum I’m sure will continue into the new year and beyond. 

Businesses face uncertain futures. When you and your team sit around the table, what conversations are you having?

First and foremost, we assess the key question – how can we keep everyone connected with Majestic safe?

That has been our central mantra since March and I believe we have gone above and beyond at every juncture to stick to it. We constantly survey our staff, more than at any other time in our history, to get their feedback from the shop floor and to ensure we are living up to this principle. It’s been a difficult year, and we’ve had to adapt to on a daily basis but that has been our guiding conversation.

After that, it’s what else can we do to support our customers and our suppliers. Are we getting the right mix of wines to our stores for them to discover? Can we pull any levers to bring in additional support, such as extra vans or staff? Can use promotions or purchasing to support where it is needed? And do we have the capacity, across the business, to deliver these? 

The biggest thing, for us, has been just having those conversations. We have daily briefings, seven days a week, as a board at 9am to talk through our action plan for the day; and then follow up calls with the guys on the ground and in the office to action. It’s a bit of a war-room setting but you simply cannot over-communicate in these situations. 

What is your biggest concern regarding Brexit?

On the whole, we will wait and see and are of course making preparations for different eventualities. We’re pleased to have worked with the WSTA to highlight the issue around VI-1 forms, and we would encourage the government to continue working with the association to ease any issues we may face as an industry. 

How do you think the trading environment will play out post-Brexit?

That remains to be seen. We are confident that, at Majestic at least, we will have plenty of fantastic wines, beers and spirits on hand whatever the world looks like next year. 

What areas of your business has Covid had the biggest impact on?

Undoubtedly our business-to-business arm. Majestic Commercial represents a sizeable proposition of our overall business, serving bars, restaurants, sports arenas and general hospitality. This part of our business has been suspended for large parts of 2020 and has had an undoubtedly negative effect on our overall performance.

I would like to say a huge thank you, however, to the colleagues across this part of the Majestic family who have remained flexible and positive throughout. They’ve continued to work hard, whether by supporting retail colleagues or finding new opportunities, wherever they can; and I believe that we’ll be in great shape when hospitality does return to some kind of normality. 

It’s been a mixed picture in terms how much Brits have drunk during the pandemic. What do your sales suggest?

We have seen an increase in retail sales and we’ve seen record numbers of new customers discover Majestic. But we have had to offset that against the loss of our Commercial business for much of this year. 

I think those figures are born out at a national level beyond Majestic, too. We have seen some incredible growth in certain categories (including in fine wine regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux), and overall the average bottle price sold through our stores has jumped slightly. This suggests that we may be drinking better at home, if not necessarily more, in most categories. 

What have you done to take advantage of the rise in off-trade sales during lockdowns?

We’ve had a very clear plan through 2020 for Majestic: get back to what we do best and what our customers love most. When I rejoined the business at the end of 2019, I embarked on a huge national listening project to get to grips with what both our customers and colleagues want from us. The decisions and changes we have made this year have been driven more by that feedback than Covid. Though in many ways I think they were the right calls for both.

These decisions included a wholesale review of the Majestic range, with well over 300 new wines added, a huge increase in our level of WSET training with 300 more colleagues put through their exams this year and the roll out of two new stores in Henley and Beckenham. Plus, we’ve increased our home delivery capacity, with more vans nationwide, and are working extremely hard to upgrade our systems and launch a new website.

All of this has really delivered positive change for the business and actually allowed us to weather Covid reasonably well, thus far. But they were changes I would have looked to make to really get Majestic back on the right track regardless. 

If you had to pick the next big thing in wine what would it be?

I defer to my expert store staff on this one. I visit our branches a lot, and the region I keep hearing about (and being encouraged to buy!) is Greece. 

It seems to us that the perception is really beginning to change away from the retsina-holiday wine tag, and the serious wines are getting some love and attention. We’ve launched a few new parcels from the country in recent times which are being lapped up, particularly by staff. I always think that if Majestic colleagues are buying something up, it won’t be long before their customers are too! 

If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?

I would love to see a greater diversity of voices. My background isn’t wine, it’s retail in general. I’ve had my fair share of remarks from within the wine industry, and I don’t mind that at all, as I’ve got expertise across the business at my fingertips. But I know for some that stands as a real barrier to entry. We’re not always the most welcoming industry to join, and we seem to prize wine knowledge above other skills far too often.

It’s one of the reasons I started our Diversity In Wine Scholarship this year, offering free WSET places to BAME individuals. We want Majestic to be part of that change which welcomes new voices and backgrounds into our industry because, ultimately, I think it will make it a stronger, more vibrant place to be. 

Quickfire questions:

New versus Old World?

For me, Old World. It’ll be Sancerre on the Christmas table this year.

Red, white or rose?

Pink seems to have been the colour of 2020, our sales are off the clock! So I’ll say rosé, and an English one at that. 

Screw top or cork?

Cork. You can’t beat the popping noise of a corkscrew doing its work. 

Bottle versus box?

Bottle…but watch this space. 

Still versus sparkling?

I think any excuse for any fizz this year we have to take. So sparkling, definitely.