Over the past few years, reports of disgruntled customers failing to receive the Bordeaux futures bought and paid for via 1855.com have regularly hit the news as the number of court cases brought against the retailer has spiralled. The business model used by 1855.com is based on taking orders for Bordeaux great growths sold as futures, being paid for the goods but not actually securing them. The idea is that in the two to three years between purchase date and due delivery time, 1855.com will have succeeded in buying the wines at a cheaper rate than the châteaux prices at time of release, thereby ensuring a profit for the retailer. The model came unstuck though with the huge speculation surrounding the last two vintages, fuelled primarily by new Chinese demand. UFC-Que Choisir has likened 1855.com’s scheme to scams such as the Ponzi-type system. The fragile nature of the scheme has meant that the retailer has been unable or unwilling to refund dissatisfied customers, despite numerous attempts by the website’s clients. According to UFC-Que Choisir, the opaque nature of the Bordeaux futures market makes it very difficult to prove that the website has been ‘short selling’ with customers taking delivery of the wines several months or even years after they have been bought: “1855.com has been skilfully taking advantage of this loophole in the market since it was founded”.
However, the consumer association believes that the tide is turning, citing a recent downturn in the website’s finances following the withdrawal of Jean-Pierre Meyers – husband of L’Oréal heir Françoise Bettencourt – from the firm’s group of stakeholders. In less than 12 months, the holding company that owns 1855 has increased share capital ten times, arousing serious doubts over the financial stability of the firm. Similarly, a number of court cases have come down in favour of the website’s clients, awarding them compensation in the event that 1855.com fails to ship the wines ordered. Initially a daily penalty fee of 50 euros was awarded; this has recently been raised to a record 800 euros a day, which according to UFC-Que Choisir proves that the courts are losing patience with 1855.com. The association also claims that other companies belonging to the website – namely Châteauonline.fr and Caveprivée.com – are being affected by the same ‘syndrome’.