A selling frenzy saw off-licences vanish from high streets - but now they're fizzing back to life

Signs of life are springing up like the bubbles in an '82 Bollinger Grande Année. Let's raise a glass to that, says John Walsh
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As you, O hard-worked wine lover, trudge home to your supper after a tough day, you may soon see a blissful sight in your high street. Like an oasis of red, white and rosé amid a sea of nail bars and Costa coffee shops, an off-licence may shortly be appearing in your neighbourhood, beckoning you, with its cheery lighting and discount-tastic window display, to come in, spend a tenner on Côtes du Rhône Villages and go on your way rejoicing.

You thought they'd packed up and gone forever? You were nearly right. Retail soothsayers have been predicting the death of the offy for five years. A decade ago, we were spoilt for choice. Town shoppers could visit, as well as Oddbins, branches of Threshers, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Unwins, Victoria Wine and Nicolas. They catered for the passing trade of thirsty grown-ups as naturally as local sweetshops catered for schoolchildren.

As the supermarkets marketed wine more and more aggressively, however, off-licences struggled. They couldn't hold as much bottle-stock, week by week, as Sainsbury and Waitrose, they couldn't compete on prices – their margins were small already – and they couldn't offer much in the way of Unique Selling Propositions except in posh premier cru vintages or esoteric single malts, for which the market is tiny.

This century saw a selling frenzy by, among others, the First Quench conglomerate, owners of 1,200 stores including Threshers, Wine Rack, Victoria Wine and Bottoms Up. Marques were sold on like hot potatoes, to companies that asset-stripped them. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of UK off-licences fell by 20 per cent from 5,430 to 4,400. First Quench finally flung its sodden bar-towel over the pumps in 2009. Within a month, 6,000 staff were out of a job.

"What emerges from the murk," remarked Management Today at the time, "is a picture of a group of slightly second-rate bottle shops, poorly managed by cashflow-hungry money-people with no real vision for the business. Few would have known a bottle of Newcastle Brown from 75 centilitres of Cloudy Bay."

Oddbins, which started life in 1963 and once had 350 branches, also went into administration in 2011.

Now look what's happened. Signs of life are springing up like the bubbles in an '82 Bollinger Grande Année. Oddbins, whose 37 moribund stores were bought by European Food Brokers, has announced a huge expansion: it will roll out more than 100 stores in the next 12 months, staffed by people who can be relied on to distinguish between a d'Yquem pudding wine and a De Kuyper cherry brandy. EFB's owner, Raj Chatha, is a hero of the wine trade: he kept 12 branches of Unwins and 100 Wine Cellars afloat, and will introduce an Oddbins franchise model to independent wine retailers who need help.

Amazingly, Wine Racks are also coming back. Their cheerfully named new owner, Conviviality Retail, opened the first new-look store in West Byfleet last November, and will open more this year, starting in Harrogate, Richmond and York. It promises a "new, refreshed design", and a "seated tasting table" at which patrons can conduct elevated oenological chat while swilling through several free glasses.

As with Oddbins, it's also looking for suitable retailers to clasp to its corporate bosom. So we have the happy spectacle of two supposedly dead off-licence chains simultaneously returned to life and fighting for mastery.

It remains to be seen how they'll compete with each other. They may copy French hypermarkets and introduce virtual sommeliers – robotic wine experts to talk shoppers through ideal wine suggestions for dinner. They may emulate an initiative from the American Total Wine & More stores, of offering live-screen links to Napa Valley vineyards, and the chance to live-tweet a winemaker, in search of advice. But most shoppers will just be glad to have them back – and drink a bumper of Viognier to their return to the desert wastes of the modern British high street.