Thursday, 24 January 2013

High Street Terminal


So I cast my mind back ten years, and I see a thinnner, darker-haired, fractionally blither version of myself, limping off to get a bottle of wine, possibly to take to a dinner party, possibly to consume in morbid silence at home. I am spoiled for choice. Within reasonably easy walking distance, there are two supermarkets - a Safeway and a Waitrose - and four free-standing wine shops. There is a Threshers, a Victoria Wine, an Oddbins and a Majestic. There may even be one or two others that I've forgotten. They all sell wine.

Leap forward to 2013, and Threshers and Victoria have both disappeared from our part of town, leaving their premises empty and abandonded, while Safeway, having had a brief fling at being a Morrisons, was rudely turned into an enlarged car park for the even more engorged Waitrose next door. Oddbins, subject of a couple of posts here already (one invoking a deluge of abuse from the firm's stooges, suggesting a business both thin-skinned and impotently furious, a Basil Fawlty business in fact), at first filled a huge cornershop space, then filled it less convincingly, and finally didn't fill it at all, but handed it over to a wildly over-optimistic independent wine merchant, who did his best to bring the art of fine drinking to our very slightly substandard neighbourhood.

The over-optimistic wine merchant kept it going for a good eighteen months before decamping to the other side of the main road and into smaller, more manageable premises, more befitting his bespoke trade ambitions. Meanwhile, another wildly over-optimistic wine merchant succeeded to the ex-Oddbins slot, but with even fewer resources than the first one. Majestic, tucked away from these arbitrary dissolutions and reformations, picked up the business they lost, and prospered.

But where are we now, right now? Unsurprisingly, the first over-optimistic wine merchant has gone bust. Pizza flyers and demands for final payment litter his shop entrance. The second over-optimistic wine merchant is trading with a vanishingly small amount of stock in an increasingly vast retail space, which now resembles a basketball court with a bottle of Pinot Grigio at either end. It can't be long before this too goes the way of all independent wine shops. In the interim, it must be said, not one but two Tesco Metro stores - the little urban stop'n'shops - have taken root. And Waitrose just keeps getting bigger. Thus, we began the decade with four wine stores and two supermarkets. We now have one wine store, one supermarket, one moribund wine store, and two chain convenience stores. I am guessing that this is pretty typical of High Street UK.

Is there any reason to fret about this? Patterns of wine consumption have changed out of all recognition in the space of a generation, so why shouldn't the retailing? My parents did their booze shopping in a world of off-licences and one-man suppliers, who kept limited hours and even more limited stock. If you could even find a bottle of Riesling in of these outlets, the chances were that it was sharing the shelf with a tin of Long Life and some Babychams. So in the great scheme of things, we haven't lost much. In fact we've gained. So is there any cause for anxiety? Only because of Majestic, round the corner.

For why? After all, the last couple of years have been pretty good for Majestic, sales up strongly, new stores opening. Until this last Christmas in fact, when sales growth seems to have taken a bit of a hit. Indeed, like-for-like sales in the first 39 weeks of the business's financial year were only up 0.8%, which is better than nothing, but not outstanding. Does this matter? Isn't it premature to get exercised about one, fairly marginal, set of figures?

Well, it taps into a sentiment which I can't quite rationalise and can't quite shake off: that Majestic has stopped being as much fun as it used to be. I can remember going, over a quarter of a century ago, to my first Majestic: where I was knocked out by its immensity, its unbelievably exciting (for the mid-Eighties) range, its stupendous prices, its gritty, authentic, warehouse atmosphere, all concrete floors and industrial lighting. And the fact that you had to buy a minimum of a case, which made me feel like a real grown-up, all that wine and only one liver to deal with it.

Now it's 2013 and the warehouses are still there, with the concrete floors and the draughty ambience, but the wines are starting to look a bit familiar, pretty much like the ones you see in the supermarkets, and the prices are okay but not magical, and the draughty ambience is starting to seem less like a justifiable approach to great value retailing and more like a convention, a reflex, another bit of branding rather than the expression of an ethos. And what with the recent TV adverts: I mean fair play, they want to broaden their appeal, but the last time I was in there, a bloke - pretty much like the woman in one of the ads - said, Well actually I don't drink wine, it's for somebody else, what's a good red? And the sales guy, right on the money, said, Rioja's popular. You know what I mean. It's not exactly special.

I like Majestic. My heart still quickens when I pass one of their stores. If they went the same way as Oddbins and Threshers, I would be upset, partly because it would mean losing something I was attached to; and because the whole retail ecosystem of our neighbourhood, and by extension, the country, would dwindle.

Except, except. How sentimental can anyone afford to be about a retail chain? Maybe my kids will come to regard our notion of a High Street wine merchant with as much amused condescension as I grant the memory of the off-licence with my Dad bumbling in on a Saturday morning to get his soda syphon refilled. If the wine merchant goes the way of the milliner and the draper, does it matter? Why shouldn't we get everything online or from a supermarket chain? Nostalgia is a disease, so let's embrace whatever the future might bring in as sanguine a frame of mind as we can manage. To which end, I unheedingly take another swig from my Waitrose generic Côtes du Rhône (4.99 from their Almost Drinkable range) and await developments at Majestic, just a quarter of a mile away from its arch-enemy, the Last of the Few.

CJ






3 comments:

  1. you are right. it has become more predictable and less exciting than it used to be. needs a significant injection of new options. oh yes.

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  2. I find most of Majestic's selection about as exciting as the men's elasticated trouser selection at Marks & Spencer. In other words, outdated, a little too safe and what our father's and grandfather's would buy.

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  3. A trend is emerging here...

    And although some of us have had reason to thank the elasticated waistband more than once, I would agree it lacks showroom appeal

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