Wine Rack ripe for growth
Published:  08 January, 2010

After manic negotiations to buy Wine Rack and a package of 13 best-performing stores, Laki Christoforou hopes to slow down in 2010.

“My new year’s resolution is to stop working so hard and to go to the gym twice a week,” says the chairman of wholesaler Venus Wine & Spirit – and now proud new owner of the Wine Rack brand.

But as with most new year’s resolutions, it’s unlikely this one will ever be fulfilled.

“The past six to eight weeks have been silly – getting to work at 7am and going home at 11pm,” Christoforou admits. “It’s not just me, it’s all the staff – they’re loyal and hard working.”?Nearly 100 people have joined the newly formed LCL Enterprises since the December takeover, including First Quench buyer Amy Bird and district manager Rod Rodrigues.

James Rackham, chairman of Surrey-based agency Emporia Brands, has also come on board as vice-chairman and his existing shop, Arthur Rackham Emporia, has been rebranded as Wine Rack – bringing the number of stores in the estate up to 14.

The first task facing the LCL team was restocking stores from Venus’s Tottenham depot before the Christmas rush and making sure new EPOS systems were up and running. But with the busy Christmas period now out of the way, how does Christoforou intend to restore the fortunes of the troubled chain???Finer things in life“We’re looking at the product range very carefully,” he says, with plans to combine big mainstream brands with wines from smaller or more unusual wineries.

All stores will stock a greater range of fine wines, costing anything from £25 up to £100, and will be equipped with temp­erature-controlled storage units.

Ensuring store managers and staff are knowledgable about wine is a top priority for Christoforou, who wants to see all employees trained up to WSET Intermediate level or higher. Staff will also be expected to run tasting events every weekend, themed by country or grape variety.

As the owner of well-known spirits specialist Gerry’s in Soho, Venus also has the ability to rejuvenate Wine Rack’s spirits offering. “Venus’s strength is spirits. Where Gerry’s stocks 280 tequilas, Wine Rack will do 20, along with some of the rums and vodkas,” says Christoforou.

The chain will also be less reliant on the three-for-two promotions it was famous for. “In the long? term I don’t like that mechanic, personally,” he says, adding that when it comes to Champagne, the three-for-two offer is “definitely?a no”.

Tricky negotiationsWhen First Quench went into administration Christoforou knew he wanted a slice of the carved-up estate, but negotiations with administrator KPMG were far from easy.

“KPMG was difficult to deal with. Every question we asked, the answer was ‘no’,” he says. “Originally we were going to take over 100 stores across England. But the risk was too big so after some consultation we chose the top 13 stores.”?Despite so much coverage in the press about Wine Rack’s inability to meet consumer needs and its ongoing problems with out-of-stocks, Christoforou isn’t worried about the fascia’s credibility. “Wine Rack generally has a good name,” he believes.

“?Stores were clean and tidy with high levels of appearance and the estate was refurbished in the past 18 months. Wine Rack as a group of shops was profitable for First Quench.”?While Christoforou admits “the recession and supermarkets” played their part in the entire chain’s collapse, he lays most of the blame at First Quench’s door.

“It was a very big company and the guys at the top weren’t listening to the guys on the ground.

It wasn’t unique enough or special enough. It didn’t have a point of difference,” he says.

This USP is exactly what Christoforou wants to nurture, making Wine Rack “a destination place”, rather than somewhere a passer-by might go to if they couldn’t be bothered to do a proper supermarket shop.

“We want the consumer to walk in and see a good range of wines. It’s about giving the customer more choice. You can walk into a Wine Rack this week and find wines you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the UK,” he says.

Good news for franchiseesChristoforou’s vision of the chain will be welcome news to smaller suppliers who in the past have found themselves frozen out of negotiations – thanks to First Quench’s policy of dealing with only a handful of the big guys.

“First Quench was a very closed door. It was virtually impossible for new suppliers to get in. That’s not how we work here,” Christoforou says.

There’s also good news for some Thresher franchisees, who have now successfully freed themselves from their contracts after KPMG refused their collective bid to buy out stores from the First Quench administration.

While Christoforou reveals he is “already talking to some of the franchisees” about which stores would fit into the Wine Rack portfolio, he is reluctant to reveal further details about plans for a franchise scheme.

But on the subject of the chain’s future growth prospects he is more open. “Our short-term plan is to get up to 25 shops in the next three months. Eventually 50 would be a good number,” he says.

The expansion will see LCL go on a recruitment drive including “looking to take on human resources and IT [staff], and probably another buyer”.

With the arrival of the new year, Christoforou is determined to make Wine Rack a success on the struggling high street. “People will still count their money before they spend. No doubt there will be more fatalities next year in the retail world,” he says.

“Good or bad, the supermarket has taken control of the high street. We have all got to keep working hard going into? 2010 – controlling costs and ensuring we’re offering the consumer what they want in every part of the business.”

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