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Dominic Walsh, The Times, November comment

Published:  05 November, 2009

I am a fairly typical Majestic Wine customer. I visit my nearest store in Reigate about four times a year, purchasing up to two cases of wine ranging from £4.99 to £8.99 a bottle plus the odd case of lager during the summer months. On top of that, I buy two or three bottles on a fairly regular basis when I'm shopping at the supermarket.

The recession has not changed my spending patterns all that much: I buy less Champagne and more sparkling wine, but with the cost of the euro having made my annual cross-Channel booze cruise uneconomic, I now make an extra trip to Majestic while my supermarket top-ups are probably a little more frequent.

All of which has set me musing on what impact Majestic's recent decision to reduce its minimum purchase requirement from 12 bottles to six will have on my spending patterns. According to Steve Lewis, the Majestic chief executive, part of the reason for changing its 12-bottle rule was to try to coax the three or four times a year customer like me to transfer some of those supermarket top-ups to Majestic.

Well, I hope for his sake I am unrepresentative, as it hasn't happened with me. I always drive to the Reigate store (a handy place to park in a notoriously tricky town centre for parking) and if I'm buying wine I tend to think I may as well take advantage and stock up.

The other main reason for the change is to attract people who have traditionally been put off either for financial reasons or because they do not have a car. Lewis recounts how, the Christmas before last, he was in the Cheam store when a woman came in, selected two bottles and plonked them down on the counter. When told she had to buy another 10, she turned on her heels and walked out before anyone could say another word.

Soon after, Majestic started trialling the six-bottle minimum in Newcastle and Darlington, and it worked so well it extended the experiment to some stores down south before pushing the button on a company-wide policy change.

The change from 12 bottles to six may not sound like that big a deal, but changing a hugely successful business model after 28 years is seismic stuff. Although the company first introduced the 12-bottle rule to circumvent Sunday trading rules, allowing it to qualify as a wholesaler, it had long since become a point of difference in an increasingly price-driven marketplace. Without the bulk purchase requirement, Majestic claims it could never have afforded to train its staff to such a high standard.

Lewis insisted to me that the decision to impose a six-bottle level (while retaining the 12-bottle minimum for the 40 per cent of sales that are delivered) had not been taken lightly. We will have to wait for the next trading update for some detail on the impact on like-for-like sales, but in the aftermath of the change he was adamant he would not have done it unless the trial stores had seen a sufficient sales uplift to make it a no-brainer.

He was also insistent that the change was unrelated to recent financial results and was "nothing to do with the recession", although it can't be doing any harm in these straitened times for consumers.

Although it has had no discernible impact on my own purchasing, I sincerely hope it does not impinge on the reason I - and thousands of other wine drinkers - are regular customers. I'm talking about the friendly and knowledgeable staff, a keenly priced wine list strong on Bordeaux, Rhône, New World (especially New Zealand whites) and fizz, plus a good selection of well-priced beers.

The daily tastings, allowing me to try out wines I wouldn't other choose, are also a big plus, though for me the raison d'etre is its ability to spot trends and buy good wines cheaply enough to bring them within the compass of cost-conscious consumers like me.

The only thing that would make me spend more at Majestic was if the company were to open a store in Redhill, closer to where I live. As it happens, there are whispers that Lewis is indeed sizing up a possible site in the town. Now that would definitely be something worth cracking open the Champagne for.