Business

Can Oddbins regain its fizz?

  • 19 October 2011
  • From the section Business
Media captionFrom Wednesday, Oddbins is reopening 37 stores at key sites in London and Scotland

The new owners of Oddbins are hoping to return the High Street wine merchant to its former sparkle.

"We want to bring back that old Oddbins spirit, but in a fresh new way," says Oddbins managing director Ayo Akintola.

"We want to make buying wine fun and interesting again."

Once adored by thirsty oenophiles, back in the 1980s and 1990s Oddbins was for many wine lovers the place to go if you wanted to buy an interesting bottle or two.

With an eclectic range of wines from around the world, and knowledgeable and friendly staff, during its glory years Oddbins was a world away from the supermarkets and their focus on big brands.

Oddbins stores were enjoyable places to visit, where you could happily browse the shelves, get some advice, and pick up a vinous gem.

Until it all went sour.

Sold to French drinks company Castel Group in 2002, the best located Oddbins stores were turned into Castel's Nicolas brand, which sells only French wine.

The Oddbins shops that remained were starved of investment, staff became demoralised, and the range of bottles they sold dramatically cut.

Very quickly, the reasons for going to Oddbins disappeared.

Image caption Emma Nichols says Oddbins is seeking customer feedback on what wines they want it to sell

And with the big supermarkets greatly increasing their range and quality of wines - at the same time as opening smaller convenience outlets - Oddbins started to be gunned down.

Bought in 2008 by Simon Baile, the son of a previous owner, Oddbins limped on with its number of outlets falling to 85 from 250 at its historic peak.

Oddbins avoided going bust like rival First Quench Retailing, the owner of Threshers and Wine Rack, but without sufficient investment to turn around the business, its losses mounted.

Until in April of this year when it was forced to go into administration, owing HM Revenue & Customs £8.5m.

Customer feedback

Within weeks, Oddbins and 37 of its stores were bought for an undisclosed sum by EFB Group, the wine firm owned by multi-millionaire investor Raj Chatha.

Following a review of the business, Oddbins is being officially relaunched this week, with stores getting a subtle makeover and 500 new lines of wine.

Speaking at an Oddbins branch in Kennington, south London, its head of buying, Emma Nichols, is confident the chain has a bright future.

"Yes we want to return to the glory days, the Oddbins brand has a lot of much loved heritage, but we will also be making it relevant to now," she says.

To do this, Oddbins is returning to its traditional focus on the more unusual wines you cannot easily find at supermarkets - but also at the the most competitive possible prices.

"We won't be doing the big price reductions and deals like the supermarkets, that is unachievable," adds Ms Nichols. "What we will do is honestly offer the best possible wines we can sell at each price point.

Niche seller

"What excites me most as a buyer, is finding gems that we can sell for say six or seven pounds a bottle.

Image caption Oddbins hopes to return to its former glory

"We will also be seeking much more customer feedback on what wines they want us to stock."

Ms Nichols adds that Oddbins currently has no plans to expand.

Yet with Oddbins often struggling to turn a profit under its previous owners, such as then Canadian drinks group Seagrams from 1984 to 2002, can EFB make it a success?

Rosie Davenport, editor of Off Licence News, says: "Oddbins plans to turn itself into a niche wine seller that is completely different to the supermarkets.

"That is simply the only way it is going to work.

"The demise of First Quench showed that if you simply sell the same big wine brands as the supermarkets you can't compete.

"Oddbins actually has a huge opportunity. Yes there have been some high profile casualties among the independent wine retailers, but others are thriving.

"There are many, many wine lovers out there who do not want to buy from a supermarket."

However, wine writer Malcolm Gluck is less optimistic.

"The new owners have to quickly understand all the mistakes made by the previous Oddbins regimes - and not replicate them." he says.

"Most importantly it has to get the locations right, and not open too many new shops.

"Back in the day, Oddbins stores were a real pleasure to shop in, but it seems to me that it never made any money - it was a conceit rather than a real business.

Image caption Oddbins staff are upbeat about the relaunch

"Most people will continue to just get their wine from a supermarket, it is as simple as that."

Yet Oddbins is confident, and its staff, one of its strongest weapons in the past, are upbeat.

Caroline Glover, manager of Oddbins' Balham branch, said: "Morale is very high again, we've got all the new stock in, plus we are very excited about the new look of the stores.

"And we are very busy again."

Christophe Bernard, a worker at the Kennington shop, adds: "We have got plenty of loyal customers, and it is very good to be able to show them that the Oddbins they love is back."

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