The giant cash-and-carry warehouses in and around Calais that supply the cross-Channel "booze cruise" trade are being forced to close or lay off staff because a crackdown by customs officers is frightening off customers.
Dozens of the warehouses have stopped operating and some surviving outlets report a fall in takings of more than 40 per cent in the past year.
The slump follows a campaign by Customs and Excise against large-scale smuggling of alcohol and tobacco, which is costing nearly £4bn a year in lost revenue to the Treasury.
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is spending an extra £209m on surveillance equipment and 1,000 more customs officers in a new purge on the smugglers. The number of vehicles confiscated by customs staff at Channel ports has trebled in three years to 171 a week.
But warehouse operators complained yesterday that the crackdown was discouraging legitimate customers who wrongly believed that a trip to France to stock up their wine cellar could cost them their car.
Dave West, owner of the EastEnders warehouse, said he had consulted lawyers and was planning to take legal action against Customs and Excise under the Human Rights Act because he had lost so much business. He said: "They are abusing and terrifying people. If Customs were to act in the same way to people going down to Safeway to shop then Safeway would not have any business.
"Going over to Calais should be no different from going to the supermarket. Customs ought to concentrate on people bringing lorryloads not the average shopper."
Len Carpenter, a former Surrey builder who decamped to France to run Boozers warehouse, said: "Customs have done a good job but they are going too far. They are stopping people who have just come for a day out. They are normal, middle-aged people stocking up on wine. It's for their own use – they are not 'runners'."
Mr Carpenter said his monthly takings had fallen from £550,000 a month to £320,000 a month in the space of a year. He is about to make 15 of his 36 staff redundant because of the downturn in business. He said: "Yesterday we done 26 grand. This time last year we done 50 grand. We are lucky to survive. We have had a couple of offers to buy us out but we don't want to do that when we are at a weak point."
Many of the problems stem from confusion over the law. The Treasury places a limit on the amount that travellers can claim for personal consumption. Customs officers hand out leaflets with what are described as "EU Guidelines" limiting people to 800 cigarettes, 1kg of rolling tobacco, 110 litres of beer and 90 litres of wine.
But the customs crackdown has drawn criticism from the office of the European commissioner for the internal market, which argues that travellers should not be limited in moving goods around the single market unless there is proof that they intend to sell them on the black market. Mr Carpenter said that the "van trade" of organised smugglers had almost disappeared and that the number of alcohol warehouses around Calais had fallen to "four or five", when there were about 30 such outlets two years ago.
He said that other businesses in Calais were also being hit by the decline in "booze cruise" traffic. P&O Stena Line said that the number of passengers on its ferries was down 11 per cent during the early part of summer.
The lack of excise duty on alcohol purchased in France mean typical savings of £1.16 on a bottle of wine, £1.65 on champagne and £5.48 on spirits. Many of the warehouses then offer further discounts on top.
Some booze-cruisers have also been tempted to buy cheap cars from showrooms that have sprung up alongside some of the alcohol warehouses. Some vehicles can cost British buyers £6,000 less than they would pay at home. The Brewers and Licensed Retailers' Association is unconvinced that the day of the Calais cash-and carry is over. It believes that more than a million pints of beer are still being brought into Britain every day and thinks that the Government should instead be cutting the duty on alcohol.
A customs spokeswoman said officials were "very pleased" if the message was getting through to smuggling gangs that they faced a strong likelihood of being caught. But she said: "The honest traveller has absolutely nothing to fear."