Can Oddbins survive?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Is it farewell then, Oddbins? In recent weeks, the innovative high-street chain has come in for some unusually fierce stick. It's being rumoured that prices have gone up, the wine range has shrunk and the staff are demoralised. If the perceptions are valid, the end would indeed appear to be nigh for the award-winning chain that has surprised and delighted customers since the Sixties.

The fuss has been precipitated by the sale of the 228-strong chain in January last year for £250,000 per store to the owners of the French chain Nicolas, Castel. Like a French general running a Napoleonic outpost of empire, the new managing director, French accountant Gilles Le Besnerais, is apparently under instructions to increase the threadbare margins on which Oddbins survived. Ominously, its talented head buyer for 16 years, Steve Daniel, has packed his rucksack for Santorini.

If this were a pantomime, it would be a simple matter to cast Nicolas as the villain and Steve Daniel as the hero. The reality is that for all its entrepreneurial flair, Oddbins was heading for the knacker's yard when it was snapped up.

The chain's problems are symptomatic of a general high-street malaise, linked to the increasing power of the supermarkets. From a 50 per cent share of the take-home wine trade in 1985, the supermarkets today are edging towards 80 per cent. The high street has seen the likes of Peter Dominic, Augustus Barnett, Davisons and Fullers all go to the wall. Not so the quirky Oddbins chain, which was a role model for supermarket vintage selections and attempts at innovation by other big companies, like Wine Rack, which endured, and Gare du Vin, which didn't.

There have been many previous false twilights in the Oddbins saga. Despite a feeling that the market edifice built on sheer love of wine would come tumbling down when Castel's predecessor, Seagram, got its claws into Oddbins, it didn't happen. Steve Daniel was given carte blanche to build an impressive range. Forays into Australia, then Chile and South Africa, epitomised the buccaneering free spirit. Daniel even indulged a passion for modern Greek wines.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Oddbins is that it has survived for as long as it has in its free-spirited form. Increasingly, the high street is losing much of its relevance for wine lovers. The mediocre wine brands of the Seventies have been replaced by sufficient good-value everyday wines from Australia and the rest of the world to take the pain, but with it much of the pleasure, out of the hunt. As the popular new throng of Tesco Metros, Sainsbury's Locals and M&S Simply Foods demonstrate, today's high street is about convenience.

So is the writing-off on the wall? Not quite. Managing director le Besnerais admits that Oddbins needs to trim the range and increase margins to survive. But he insists: "I am committed to building on Oddbins' key strengths, our staff, the location of our stores and a range which offers quality and choice." To that end, the long-term aim is to expand the number of shops and to maintain a 1,200-strong range, which is still the biggest in the high street. If he can succeed, Oddbins may yet survive and prosper. Whether it's enough to stop the general high-street rot is another matter. As Ron Atkinson might put it, that's a massive ask.

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