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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders