Richard Hemming MW: fond Majestic memories

My first day as a trainee manager in Majestic Wine was in June 2001. I had applied for the job because it offered a graduate training scheme that promised quick promotion through the ranks, although the 25% staff discount was a factor too.

Back then, Majestic ranked highly in best employer charts, and prided itself on recruiting the kind of ambitious and talented graduates who could have worked in industries that paid far higher than wine retail. Good-looking too. Ambitious, talented and incredibly good-looking. 

I knew nothing about wine, but by the time I left Majestic six years later, as senior manager of one of its busiest stores, I had passed the WSET Diploma.

My experience as a Majestic greenshirt was overwhelmingly positive. Hours were long and pay was low, but the company culture was great – youthful, dedicated, aspirational. At the time, wine consumption was growing nationwide and Majestic was riding the crest of that wave with a broad, interesting range.

Twelve years later, the company is on the brink of being sold off. While I mourn its loss, sentimentality has no place in business, and several autopsies of Majestic have already concluded that the decision is ultimately the right one. But how did Majestic go from the thriving company I knew to an ailing one in little more than a decade?

When I left in 2007, Majestic experienced its 14th consecutive year of profit growth, boasting 400,000 customers across 136 stores – all of which were large and easily accessible, with free parking and free delivery. With a minimum purchase of 12 bottles, the average sale was £123 and the average bottle price of £5.59 was the envy of the industry at the time. 

The strategy had been to open 10 new stores every year, increase fine wine sales and have the best (and best-looking) staff in the business. When long-serving chief executive Tim How stepped down in 2008, his successor, Steve Lewis, continued this strategy, and by the time he left in 2015, there were 212 stores and the minimum purchase was only six bottles – but all-important profit growth had stalled.

Subsequently, Majestic tried revamping stores from a warehouse to a more traditional retail format, allowing single-bottle purchases and offering “franchise-lite” schemes to managers, but all to no avail – last year’s profit of £8.3 million was half that of 2007.

As Majestic expanded, the range got less interesting. Meanwhile, the collapse of high street off-licence chains prompted an increase in indie wine merchants that appealed to engaged wine lovers, while discounter supermarkets stole the bottom end. Simultaneously, Britain experienced the credit crunch, recession, unfavourable exchange rates and a slowdown in the rate of wine consumption.

In this context, Majestic’s demise is hardly surprising – and perhaps no single cause can be blamed. The company evolved in an attempt to keep delivering profit for shareholders, but nothing worked.

I’m not saying that returning to the model I knew would revive Majestic’s profitability – but restoring the quality of its wine range and investing in staff must surely be the first step.

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