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Boom time is over

Published:  23 July, 2008

It was one of the UK's more dubious exports: a fleet of white vans whose drivers' total experience of our Gallic neighbour's country was the short drive from the ferry terminal to a pile-it-high' cash-and-carry.

Following the French government's increase in tobacco tax three years ago this invasion of UK duty crusaders is no more, with Poland and Spain more likely destinations for the camionnette blanche.

Most serious Calais drink retailers would be relatively unconcerned with this drop in revenue were it not for the fact that the number of UK day-trippers - who bought more booze and less tobacco - has similarly slumped, by around 10 to 20% every year since 1999, according to guestimates by the Calais Chamber of Commerce. Formerly thriving businesses are now going bust and shops that previously operated on a Field of Dreams philosophy - 'If we build it they will come' - are having to work harder to attract customers from across the channel.

The reasons for this slump are numerous, although one major cause stands out. As Nico Theriot, the Calais-born former buyer for Sainsbury's Calais and a member of the local chamber of commerce, explains: 'Regarding the decline of trade, the first real big hit was in July 1999 with the abolition of duty-free shops in the three ferry companies and Eurotunnel. In the preceding years, these operators were making about half of their turnover just with this trade on board or at the terminals for the Tunnel. To compensate for their lack of profit coming from the duty-free business, all the companies increased their crossing fares tremendously, which obviously put a lot of people off their regular trips to Calais. The cross-channel business never really recovered from that.'

The other contributing factors probably include the availability of cheap air flights in Europe - as Theriot put it, 'just the saving made buying a few boxes of fags will pay for your flight' - and, more recently, the discount frenzy in UK multiples convincing consumers (whether rightly or wrongly) that there is no need to cross the channel to get yourself an absolute bargain.

The recently released Majestic full-year results are a case in point. Whereas its UK operation continues to boom, the Calais store - branded as Wine & Beer World - 'experienced tough trading conditions and like-for-like sales declined 7.1% on last year'. Tesco, which has a massive presence in Calais' famous retail park in Cit de l'Europe, would only say that 'Tesco Calais is performing well within the marketplace', which only the most optimistic observer could take to mean anything other than a drop.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Calais is moving towards a slow death. None of the major retailers has pulled out of the region, suggesting that despite the drop in traffic there are more than enough customers to make it a profitable venture. As Jeremy Palmer, commercial manager at Majestic, says: 'It is business as usual for us. There are no factors suggesting any major changes to our Calais store.'

Interestingly, there are two stores that have bucked this general decline and are posting record results. Franglais, situated near the Eurostar terminal, and Calais Vin in central Calais are proving increasingly popular with UK customers. Run by brothers-in-law Olivier Vermisse and Jerome Pont, the two stores are thriving in a troubled market and have a surprisingly loyal customer base for an area where all purchasing decisions are supposed to be based on price. This is even more surprising when you realise that Franglais - which was previously a struggling 'pile-it-high' place - was taken over in 1999, at the end of the 'golden age', and Calais Vin two years later. 'What we wanted to do was provide a place in Calais where people could come and enjoy the experience,' says Vermisse. 'We have 60 wines available to taste at both stores, which has proved very, very popular, with the featured wines always selling well. We've also introduced a fine wine section and sourced some interesting wines that you will not find at any of the major stores. Although we do also offer a range of 99p wines that a lot of people come to Calais for.'

Pont says that central to the offer is having knowledgeable staff on hand - which means, more often than not, one of the brothers themselves - to lead consumers through the tasting and convince them to trade up. 'Traffic may be falling but our average spend is way up. The average UK consumer spends more than 150 here.'

It's not just about offering wines above the ordinary though. The pair has hired a UK-based marketing agency to carry out a direct mail campaign in their UK target areas. They also have a thriving wine club, which offers savings and other deals to regular customers, which gives them the all-important mailing lists. It's clear that if you work hard enough - and understand how to create a worthwhile shopping experience (which means more than offering the cheapest prices) - you can make wine retail in Calais work.

Interestingly, Pont feels that the key to success in France, and not just Calais, is in wine stores becoming more 'English' - in terms of layout and service, if not the New World product range. 'There is nothing in France like Majestic Wines in the UK. I've been to the UK to do research on wine retail and I was very impressed with this chain. In France you have the supermarkets and then very specialised local shops. I don't see why you couldn't have a range of 50 stores around France that operate on a "warehouse" concept. Offering a great product range, service and free tasting.' Don't bet against them achieving it.

Future perfect

According to Theriot: 'The market will eventually stabilise, but it is hard to predict when. Until then a few cash-and-carrys will struggle and go out of business. It's a natural cleaning process as only the big names or the very good wine stores like Calais Vin will survive. To be honest, that isn't a bad thing for British customers because the product range, the service and the offers will improve.'

He also believes the local council is missing a chance to exploit Calais' unique position in Europe (with good transport links to the rest of France, the UK, Holland and Belgium): 'It is a great shame not to use all the assets we have here. There is a lovely seafront and beach, but it hasn't been developed by the local council, which has been communist for 35 years. We need to make Calais a place where people want to come for a weekend, not just an afternoon. Calais could be the Las Vegas of Europe.'

Theriot's dreams for his birthplace currently look a long way from being realised and until then, as with everywhere else wine is sold, it is those offering the best wines at the best price who will succeed. The white van man may be a thing of the past in Calais, but wine, thankfully, is not.