TO ANYONE still sober enough to care, it is either one of the biggest retail blunders of all time or a fiendishly clever piece of internet marketing.
Yesterday, off licence chain Thresher was besieged by customers desperate to cash in 40% discount coupons that were "released in error" to the general public and will reportedly cost the company millions.
But as drinkers stocked up for Christmas, assuming their purchases last that long, an alternative explanation began to emerge.
Some experts believe the vouchers were released "accidentally on purpose" in a bid to gain massive publicity for the firm. And there is virtual unanimity in the view that Thresher, far from losing a fortune, will make millions from the frenzy they have generated.
The apparent problems began for Thresher late last week when it emerged an e-mail voucher meant for loyal suppliers and friends and family of staff members had made its way on to the internet.
Within days the vouchers had been circulated to all and sundry and the stores in the Thresher empire were told of the potential influx of pre-Christmas custom.
Yesterday, newspapers were full of stories saying Thresher had made a monumental bungle that was certain to cost them millions.
But not everyone is convinced. One industry source claimed: "It is a very, very clever marketing trick. They will be laughing all the way to the tills this weekend as I can bet you any money in the world that they will be making a pretty healthy margin on all of their wines.
"The basic business model is that instead of operating at the usual high street margin of 30% a bottle, with this voucher, they will reduce that to 10% a bottle but calculate on selling three times as many, which I am sure they will do."
The source added: "One has to bear in mind that the discounted price is their perceived sale price and not the cost price. So, for example, a retailer can buy a bottle at 4, hike it up to 7.50, and then reduce it by 40% and he is still making a tidy profit.
"Furthermore, Thresher is benefiting by getting a lot more traffic on their internet site and picking up more e-mails and customer information for its database, which in retailing terms is dynamite."
Thresher's shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow said yesterday they had enjoyed exponential sales with many people phoning in hundreds of pounds worth of orders. In Edinburgh's Bruntsfield, one worker said he was continually filling shelves to keep up with the demand. Claire Dougan, who works at Haddows in Howe Street, Edinburgh, which is part of the Thresher chain, said: "People have been spending between 30 and 50 with the vouchers and it seems to vary across the stores. The Slateford Road branch has already taken 1,400 over two days."
Ellie Ehern, from the Earlston Place branch of Haddows, said: "Most people are investing in something they wouldn't normally buy, like a good bottle of champagne."
Neil Matthew at the Thresher store in Byers Road, Glasgow, reported three sales of 500 and said: "We are absolutely run off our feet. We had 67 voucher customers yesterday and so far today we have had 14. There have been lots of happy customers and no hassle at all."
Stephen Cook at Bottoms Up on Hyndland Street in Glasgow, also part of the Thresher group, said: "The response has been phenomenal. We've taken seven vouchers already today and made around 1,000 on them. Normally we would have made about 200 by this stage.
"One lady told me she waited two hours to get the voucher off our website, with the Thresher site crashing every few minutes because of the demand."
Hans Rissmann who was stocking up with his wife at Bottoms Up in Edinburgh's Stockbridge, said: "It allows us to splash out a little more and enjoy a substantial discount. We've already got two boxes of white and a bottle of champagne put aside and we're still looking, so we're thoroughly enjoying ourselves."
Meanwhile, Thresher's rivals were keeping their cool. A spokeswoman for Asda said last night: "It is quite possible it is some sort of marketing thing but it should have little effect on our customers and what we have to offer."
A spokesman for Tesco said: "I don't see this having any impact on us as a company and I'm sure it was a genuine mistake. I cannot see someone like Thresher not making money out of it. All of us are doing discounts and offers of some kind at this time of year."
James Wrobel, owner of independent wine shop Cornelius, in Edinburgh, said he was unsurprised by the response: "If I had the money and the sense to pull off something like this then I probably would. The thing is, though, since Thresher put their prices up last year, it's open to question how much people will really save on an offer like this."
Corking deals for top tipples
TOP-END claret for just over 5 a bottle, Bollinger for under 25 and vintage Chablis coming in at half price - it all sounds too good to be true. Yet behind the marketing ploy there are bargains to be had on Threshers' list.
The more you spend the more you save, so if you can afford it, it is worth splashing out that little bit extra.
The cheaper wines are a less attractive buy because - even with the 40% discount - you could probably find them at the same price in supermarkets already.
But you will probably never get a fine wine so cheap, and the smart money is on the champagne, where almost all of the major houses can be picked up cheaper per single bottle than anywhere else on the high street.
Of particular note is Bollinger, down from 37.49 a bottle to 22.49; Taittinger from 30.99 to 18.50 and Veuve Clicquot yellow label down to 17.39 - the cheapest I have seen it anywhere.
Away from Champagne, New Zealand's highly rated sparkling Pelorus can be snapped up for as little as 10.79, while the Californian Shadow Creek is an absolute snip at 7.19 down from 11.99.
My pick, is New Zealand's Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 2004, at 13.79 from 22.99.