On Wednesday morning, the government added off-licences and other alcohol outlets to its list of “essential businesses” that can stay open during the coronavirus lockdown.
The United Kingdom's only nationwide specialist wine retailer declared itself an “essential” business less than two hours after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put Britain on lockdown Monday night, worrying some staffers who were asked to keep coming into work as the coronavirus continues to spread.
The government ordered all shops selling “non-essential" goods to close. But it has not clearly defined what counts as “essential,” causing confusion at many different companies — including Majestic Wine, which has nearly 200 stores and more than 1,000 staffers, and said last night that it will operate on a delivery-only basis, meaning its stores are no longer open to walk-in customers. Internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show that company higher-ups appeared unsure about the situation even as they declared themselves “essential”.
“We will be working closely with the government to better understand exactly where this leaves us, but for now we think this is the best way forward,” said the email, signed by John Colley, Majestic Wine’s executive chair and CEO, and the company's board.
The Cabinet Office did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on whether alcohol distributors such as Majestic Wine count as “essential”.
“I'm afraid we have no further information at this time,” a spokesperson said. “The guidance is being constantly updated, so I suggest you keep checking the website.” The spokesperson also did not respond to questions about other types of businesses, including online retailers. Government officials told journalists on Tuesday that workers at “essential” businesses cannot refuse to come into work if they are not sick and if they cannot do their job from home.
In a public blog post, Majestic Wine said “no member of staff who feels uncomfortable with coming into work will be asked to.”
But the internal email put it differently: “To be clear, you will therefore be expected to come to work tomorrow, if you were due to be in,” the email said.
Majestic Wine made its decision “in line with other European countries in lock down”, the email said, noting that the company would also “be turning the website back on". “The fact that supermarkets are de-prioritising alcohol in their supply chains to focus on fresh food may mean we can, or even need, to stay open,” Colley wrote. The email said Majestic Wine served a vital role and was a “special case” as the country’s only nationwide wine retailer.
While the decision drew praise online from customers excited to stock up on wine for the uncertain weeks ahead, it followed a week of tension between higher-ups and some staffers at the wine retailer, who have been discussing on an internal messaging board how the company can stay afloat during the pandemic while keeping staffers safe.
Screenshots of those conversations were provided by a sales assistant. “I do not think Majestic is an essential business,” said the sales assistant, who asked to remain anonymous.
In a statement, a Majestic Wine spokesperson said the company was "unsure" if it was considered essential but had continued delivery services in line with government policy. The company will update its policies if that changes, the spokesperson said, and has implemented a number of safety measures aiming “to go above and beyond the UK guidance”. All vulnerable colleagues have been asked to stay at home, the spokesperson said, and others can as well.
"We do not want customers thinking they can come to our stores, and put themselves at risk by leaving the house," he said. “Like other retailers, we are continuing to take internet orders - as well as phone orders from the elderly, vulnerable and of course key workers, whom we hugely thank for their incredible work through this challenging time,” he said.
But the internal emails show how Majestic Wine has scrambled during the unfolding crisis to reassure nervous staffers. They also show a business eager to seize a moment where many anxious customers want to buy and drink their wine.
A March 19 email reported, “Tuesday was our BIGGEST ever trading day online!” In-store transactions were up, and “customers stocking up” resulted in a 103% increase in large orders. “As a result, many of you have smashed your P12 target, with 12 stores already over the line for the quarter, and no doubt more to follow!” the email said, adding that showing customers “what Majestic is all about will #savethemfromthesupermarket now, and might mean they convert their shopping habits in the future".
Screenshots of conversations on the Google message board the stores use to communicate internally show that staffers had to push back before Majestic Wine suspended in-store tasting and promotional offers, among other safety initiatives.
On March 17, staffers discussed their stress over a Vodafone offer encouraging people to “come out of self isolation to claim their free bottles,” screenshots show. Staffers reported worrisome anecdotes, such as one customer who said his wife was ill at home and asked if he could claim her bottle to take home for her.
“It seems like we are being put at risk due to people wanting their free bottle,” one said. “We are already overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of people panic buying,” said another.
Screenshots show that Colley, the CEO, expressed concern for staffers but also encouraged them to take “personal ownership” of store safety. "Do not hold back from buying as much soap as possible, for instance, or petty cashing gloves for removing tasting glasses," he wrote, asking them to “shout about your successes”.
Majestic Wine isn’t the only liquor and wine company struggling to interpret the guidance. The Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) is currently asking for more information.
The Wine Society’s CEO, Steve Finlan, took the government’s announcement as an order to close. "I believe strongly that we are doing the right thing in this instance,” he said in a statement.
But Majestic Wine has provided staffers with a letter they can give to law enforcement if asked why they are out during lockdown, saying they are “required to move to and from work, and make deliveries to our customers across the United Kingdom”.