If things aren’t going well, should you give up or try and fix them? Look at the poll this week on the Retail Week home page and you’ll see the question “Is it worth UK retailers continuing to have duty-free operations in northern France?”

John Ryan travels to Calais to visit the Majestic and Sainsbury's outlets there.

As is so very often the case, the answer to this one is, it depends. Success in Calais (as this is the only real outpost for UK duty-free retailers – a Cherbourg branch of Majestic Wine’s Beer & Wine World exists, but that’s about it) –  is contingent upon the economy back home being sufficiently buoyant to provide the pin money required to make a “booze cruise” worthwhile. And while it may be for some at the moment, there is also the fear factor at work that makes potential shoppers tend to keep their cash under lock and key.

But supposing, just supposing, that things were a little different and that, rather than fear, booze cruisers were happy to set sail for Calais on the promise of a sea of cheap alcohol. What would they find when they got there? Well, actually the only real UK chains they’d find would be a lonely branch of Sainsbury’s, lurking at the back of a car park that provides space for visitors to the adjacent Auchan hypemarket, and a couple of Majestic stores.

The car park itself is worthy of comment. In spite of the monetary backdrop, there are still plenty of UK registered vehicles occupying its spaces, but few, if any, of their drivers are heading into the UK outlet. There are two likely reasons for this. The first has to be that this branch of Sainsbury’s has been around for a long time and it looks that way, from the outside at least. Now wander in and the aisles are filled with nothing but wine, beer and spirits. Everything is well-presented and competitively priced, but it struggles against the patisserie, fish, fresh vegetable and charcuterie displays (as well as booze) that can be found in Auchan, and Brits know this as well as anyone else.

In Calais, UK shoppers are certainly thinner on the ground now than they were a year ago, but when times are tough, if nothing is done to give shoppers additional reasons for walking through the doors, then business is likely to fall off a (White) cliff.

There are still a significant number of booze cruisers rolling off the boats at Calais’ docks, but they are looking for more, and Auchan and, to an extent, the large branch of Carrefour at nearby Coquelles, are providing this. The British retailers, meanwhile, continue to hope, against hope, that more of the same will be enough. It won’t.

For a review of Calais booze-cruising options, read Retail Week magazine this Friday.

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