Majestic Wine: a sad state of affairs

Recently, we were in our local Majestic. It was just a few days after the news that the historic wine hawker was winding up its warehouses and focusing its efforts online. Morale among staff was, unsurprisingly, very low. Their usual upbeat, friendly and welcoming demeanour had been replaced by anger, frustration and bewilderment at the decision to rebrand as Naked Wines, the company bought by Majestic for £70 million in 2015. 

Capital from the closure and sale of some of the 200 stores is set to be invested in Naked Wines’ online presence and to fuel ambitions to “break” America. After the demise of Oddbins and the sad news that both The Bottle Shop and The Beer Boutique have shuttered up, the shift away from bricks-and-mortar booze businesses towards online sales is gathering pace. Majestic has reassured customers that a physical presence will remain, but for how long? Financially the strategy makes sense. It frees up the burden of business rates and big rents and the Naked Wines subscription model works – the company is enjoying double-digit growth and sales this year is expected to hit £175 million (about a third of the group’s target of £500 million).

But you can’t help feeling this is a decision it may regret. People want to talk to other people about drink. Drink has a strong track record of bringing people together and stimulating conversation – it’s a social lubricant, after all. 

There’s also a thirst for knowledge among consumers. While Majestic’s financial fortunes may have fluctuated, one constant has been its quality and knowledgeable customer service. The chaps in our local store know our names, know their stuff and have introduced us to some great gear that, frankly, we would never have upgraded to while shopping online.

What’s more, perhaps Majestic is missing a trick. Its sites, each with their own car parking area, remind us of some of the shops and brewery taps we visited in the US in 2006. American breweries were brilliant at using the space outside their industrial units to host weekly parties for the neighbourhood, featuring tastings, live music and games, local street food trucks and collaborations with other local brewers. It’s crucial the importance of a memorable consumer experience is not forgotten. It’s equally easy to forget that off-licences and shops can be, just like pubs, a crucial part of the community. 

Just weeks before Oddbins and Majestic made their respective announcements, Pernod Ricard launched a global campaign promoting drinks-driven “conviviality” - a plea for people to put their phones away and actually get together for a drink. Their research revealed that almost 80% of people asked had avoided meeting friends or family, preferring to stay at home to stream a film or TV programme. Equally concerning, nearly two-thirds of UK citizens felt that this nation is less convivial than five years ago.

While the campaign concentrates on pubs and bars, it could equally apply to the off-trade where more savvy, successful operators are realising that convivial and memorable experiences are increasingly important in creating customer loyalty. The internet may have made buying wine more convenient but it has also commoditised the experience and reduced us to recluses relying on generic tasting notes and anonymous recommendations. It’s a wretched replacement for face-to-face contact and, considering Naked Wines places such strong emphasis on the people behind the wines it sells, it’s sad that the majority of knowledgeable Majestic staff will be looking for new jobs in June.

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