How the booze cruise hit the Rocks

Weak pound and cut-rate offers by our supermarkets spell end to cars filled with cheap French plonk. Rob Hastings reports

From the crane-decorated port of Dover, it is only an hour-and-a-half ferry journey across the Channel to Calais, a destination that has improved the mood of many Brits over the years by offering something more fun than milk and honey: cheap alcohol.

No longer. In Calais, they lament that the British people's love for the "booze cruise" has run aground. Warehouses once piled high with cheap plonk and towers of lager tinnies sit barren and boarded. Car parks are empty. Mass redundancies are the order of the day.

Even the retail goliaths are pulling out: the Sainsbury's Calais Wine Store has closed, Tesco is considering its options, Oddbins has allowed its Gallic franchise to expire, and the Majestic wine chain has admitted that annual profits from its Northern France outlets fell by 28 per cent last year.

The staff of Tesco's Vin Plus store in Calais's Cite Europe shopping centre, angered by the suggestion that the shop is set to close, have gone on strike (how French). So on Saturday, the few thirsty Englanders who had bothered to cross the Channel found the Tesco wine outlet shut.

Peering through the closed shutters, and struggling to translate the small notice taped to the window, Jane Bishop and her husband John said they were disappointed to hear it was closing. "Where am I going to get my gin now?" asked Mrs Bishop. "We've always found the Tesco's here very good. We usually take 150 bottles of wine back."

Further down the mall, the alcohol aisles of the Carrefour hypermarket were deserted. What used to be the busiest bit of the shop is now the quietest. And the independent warehouses that have dotted the Calais roadsides for so many years are having trouble too. One half of the simply-named "Boozers" is now a car showroom. The other half is derelict. Late on Saturday afternoon, when it previously would have been filled with British daytrippers looking for cheap drink, the only sign of life was the sound of cicadas in the long grass growing beside the potholes in its forecourt. In their heyday, stores such as these relied on British customers for as much as 95 per cent of their custom.

The main reason for the decline of the booze cruise is the slump in the exchange rate. Even if the litre bottles of Lamb's Navy Rum (€16.50), Southern Comfort (€19.35) and Disaronno (€16.49) lining the Tesco window are cheaper than in Britain, the difference in price is no longer sufficient to encourage thousands to travel to France to stock up. At its peak in 2000, the pound was worth more than €1.7, and even in 2006 could still buy €1.50. Now it has fallen to below €1.10.

The decline in day trips to the continent has been a quick one. Their popularity grew steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, encouraged by cut-price ferry tickets and newspapers offering readers special deals. The opening of the Channel Tunnel and the strong pound helped.

One of the most popular stop-offs for alcohol bargain hunters was the store EastEnders, from where Chris Evans once broadcast his Radio 1 breakfast show during his own booze cruise. It was famous for being run by a former London market trader, Dave West, and for employing staff who, just like their customers, could barely speak a word of French.

The effect of the poor exchange rate was exacerbated this year when heavy snow in northern France badly disrupted Channel Tunnel services. Supermarkets in Britain have also become ever more competitive with their drinks prices, notoriously using alcohol as a loss leader and selling cans of lager for as little as 29p. Online wine clubs offer impressive discounts for people willing to buy in bulk too.

"The exchange rate has undeniably been one of the serious factors in the decline of the market in Calais," said Gavin Partington of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. "There's been a tail-off in trade there for some time. When they look at the promotions available in the UK, many consumers make a judgement about whether they are going to benefit from travelling overseas when they can get a good deal here."

He added: "Since 2008, tax on wine and beer has gone up by over 26 per cent and for spirits by around 22 per cent. If we had been in a period when the exchange rate had been more advantageous, there is little doubt that sort of tax increase would have triggered more cross-border trade."

One of the staff in the speciality wine shop Le Chais, opposite Carrefour, said that the number of British customers had dropped dramatically in recent months. He placed much of the blame on the recession. "It's been difficult in England, just like here and in Belgium," he said. "The English are spending less and the French are the same. It's all connected to the economy. Trade is all right but not as exceptional as it used to be."

Most of the British shoppers who were in Cite Europe on Saturday said they were on longer holidays rather than day-trips, and were intending to pick up only a few bottles. As for those who had come for the day, many said they did it less for the prices and more for the wider selection of wine available in France. There was none of the familiar consumer behaviour that involved filling cars and vans to the brim with crate upon crate of plonk.

Bill Neal, loading his boot with a few boxes of wine at the end of a six-week holiday, was not convinced he was saving very much. "There's a bit of naivety from us as Brits involved," he said. "You look at the price without paying too strict attention to the exchange rate and just think 'That's a good deal'. I reckon it's a bit of a fiddle here; it's cheaper in the south of France."

One Briton over just for the day was Brenda Dolby. "You perhaps spend the same here," she said, "but you get better for what you spend. You might spend £4 for a bottle of wine in England, but if you spend that here you get a better bottle."

Her friend, Liz Auchterlonie, added that there were still good prices to be found, especially on more expensive items such as champagne.

"We come over specifically to stock up if we're having a big celebration or party," she said. "Then we can drink champagne all day instead of just one glass at the start." She said that she had been surprised by the big decline in fellow shoppers. "I came over on the Shuttle in April and there were only 20 or so cars on there."

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