Calais is the home of the booze cruiser, but a falling pound, shrinking shopper budgets and fewer day trippers have made it challenging for UK retailers and others. John Ryan reports.

In 1360 Calais officially became part of England following its capture 13 years earlier by Edward III – who regarded France as just an unclaimed part of the country he ruled. And until recently, walking around certain areas of this city of about 125,000, it would have been easy to forget that you were anywhere but England.

This is booze cruise central and in the car parks of the giant hypermarkets such as Auchan or Carrefour, as well as the specialist wine and beer sellers, it was UK number plates, rather than French, that frequently predominated. And it is worth noting that even more than in the UK there are very distinct peaks and troughs to trading in Calais.

This is a town where the aisles fill with Brits during school holidays and at the weekends, when people from the southern English counties wake up and decide to take a day trip to France.

At other times there is a steady but relatively unimpressive flow of UK shoppers snapping up supposed bargains that will offset the cost of making the Dover-Calais crossing with a car. And Friday should be the start of the busy part of the week as UK shoppers opt to award themselves a long weekend – starting with lunch, cheap drink and a day out in the nearest bit of France.

All quite normal then, except that three weeks ago, it was very obvious that this was not the case. Driving on board the P&O ferry in preparation for Friday’s 10am crossing, it seemed like business as usual. Coach-loads of school children, pensioners, and others, were heading for the on-board self-service restaurant with many of them also making a beeline for the two Pride of Calais shops to buy cut-price beers, wines and spirits.

For some, this would be as close as they were going to get to France – making the round-trip without disembarking, but taking advantage of low prices. There was even a service allowing people to enter the onboard shops before they opened and compile a shopping list that staff would fulfil and then deliver to their cars later on.

However, for many, the voyage would be the precursor to a shimmy around the Calais shops. Yet a visit to some of the city’s major retailers revealed that the promise of cheap booze is no longer enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Wine & Beer World

This is the name that Majestic Wine – which flagged up the difficulties in the booze cruise market in its full-year results last week – has adopted in France. It has three French stores – two in Calais and one in Cherbourg. Driving into the car park of the Calais superstore, it was apparent that this is a shed for les Anglais. French-owned cars were nowhere to be seen and Majestic’s familiar corporate colours were very obvious from the nearby motorway.

Within was a well stocked, well organised and informative wine warehouse. Divided by country and then by style of wine, it was easy to find what you might be looking for, particularly when you looked upwards to the lengthy pennants that provided additional navigational aid.

For those with slightly deeper pockets there was a fine wine area and a tasting station where thimblefuls of a range of wines could be sampled. The store was piled high with half-cases and stacked up along the rear wall a small selection of better-end beers was on offer (none of your Carling for Wine & Beer World customers). There were some shoppers in the store and they were spending money, but only one checkout was in use and the member of staff was not overly taxed

Deputy manager Hervé commented that the combination of a poor exchange rate (you could pay in sterling, but everything was priced in euros), “the global crisis” and people being generally worried meant that it was a tough year when set against 2008. Your correspondent duly purchased a half-case of Premier Cru 2006 Montagny and immediately felt poor.

Eastenders

This was, without a shadow of doubt, the day’s nadir. EastEnders used to represent the bottom end of the booze cruise market in Calais and was very popular with those seeking to maximise the difference between UK and French prices.

There were three members of staff looking after the shop on the day of visiting and once you had gawped at the giant bottle of wine, positioned on the roof so that it could be seen from some distance (including from Wine & Beer World), the interior was an exercise in severe depression.

A fair portion of the interior had empty floors where there might, in happier times, have been half cases of wine and beer vying for your attention. Where there was stock, there were cobwebs over the point of sale and the sense that the merchandise had not suffered from the unwanted attentions of passing trade. It wasn’t hard to
see why the car park and shop were utterly empty.

The saving grace was a vignette featuring life-size French chevaliers in suits of armour, serving no particular purpose other than to distract from the surrounding desolation. A member of staff at the local Sainsbury’s referred to EastEnders as “un catastrophe”.

Sainsbury’s

This is the only branch of Sainsbury’s in France and looks externally and internally like a Sainsbury’s in which the wine, beers and spirits aisle has taken over the whole shop.

With probably the greatest range of wines out of the stores that directly target UK visitors, housekeeping standards were high, but once more the shop was devoid of customers. A member of staff said that all was “calme” and that things would probably pick up around 5pm, but it seemed a wish more than a statement. Duty manager Raymond said that with a 30 per cent difference in the euro/sterling exchange rate it was the French who, in increasing numbers, were making the journey to the UK.

And there were extremes in this store. A small glass case displayed a 1945 bottle of cognac valued at €16,000 (£13,552), according to Raymond. Nearby, the only food in this Sainsbury’s store was a display of “essentials” – baked beans priced at €0.09 (7p) a tin and offered as an English speciality.

The best in-store feature was the wood-clad aisle for better wines, intended to remind shoppers of a cellar presumably, and a back wall with a fetching graphic of a French hillside covered in vines.

This was a good, well-merchandised store, boasting an enormous range, but with no shoppers. A 50cl bottle of Calvados was the order this time… a €9 (£7.60) treat for cold British nights.

Auchan

Home-grown hypermarket Auchan has been a fixture on the Calais booze cruiser’s list for nearly two decades and the car park, which it shares with Sainsbury’s, had its fair share of UK cars.

Inside, like Sainsbury’s, its beer and wine department, which has astonishingly long aisles, was entirely targeted at UK shoppers with low prices forming the bulk of the offer.

As well as being a booze cruiser’s haven, this is a drop-in point for those on the way home from a French holiday who wish to prolong the experience by hoovering up some gastronomic products that they can enjoy on their return.

As such, it seemed rather more successful than the Brit operations and, like all of its competitors, it offered the chance to pay in sterling (“with no commission”) or euros.

It was also notable for the manner in which some of the larger French spirits and wine producers had badged staff positioned in the aisles indulging in a little field marketing and informing shoppers (in English) of the great value on offer. This was a trick that was absent from the other stores visited (other than on-board the ferry, where P&O had a member of staff offering samples of Pimms), but it is dependent on sufficient shoppers to make it worthwhile.