State of independents

Graham Holter asks whether reports of the death of the independent sector have been greatly exaggerated

First, a warning. This article contains statistics that some readers may find disturbing.

So let's get them out of the way. In 1988, there were 7,493 independent off-licences in Britain. By 2005, there were just 1,802 left and many observers felt the sector had hit rock bottom. They were wrong. Another few hundred traders have given up the ghost since then

and the number of privately

owned retailers specialising in alcoholic drinks now stands at a mere 1,661.

At that rate of decline, there will only be 365 independents left in the year 2028. But the stats - even if we accept they are reliable - don't tell the whole story. If this is a sector supposedly going to the dogs, why is there such a surge of interest in it from suppliers?

Part of the riddle is solved by looking at the wine-focused end of the market. These shops, which number somewhere just north of 500, have excited the trade with their eclectic ranges and energetic, knowledgeable staff.

Thirty-five per cent of independent wine merchants have opened since 2000. Lots of them don't make large profits, but for wine lovers that is rarely the point. When Oddbins was in its pomp, not many critics or customers stopped to ask questions about the state of the accounts.

Wine-focused independents have occupied a niche that their high street rivals have found hard to exploit

and there is a general feelgood factor about the contribution they are making. But let's put that warm feeling to one side and examine the state of play elsewhere in the independent sector.

At your convenience

It's increasingly difficult to sustain a viable off-licence if it does not specialise in a particular product area (most usually wine) or offer a credible range of convenience products. For evidence of this, just look at what's happening in the chains. Thresher is putting its investment into the Wine Rack and Local concepts, and Wine Cellar has pulled away from classic specialism with a more rounded offer of convenience goods.

Bargain Booze (whose merry band of franchisees are not counted in the "independent" figures) insists there is still room for "pure play" off-licences, but it too is turning its attention to convenience. It's territory that the independent trade has been exploring, with varying degrees of success, for some time.

The coming year, heralded by stark warnings of a retail recession, credit crunching, soaring oil prices and a stalling housing market, is unlikely to give struggling independents any relief. And for those who have been successful in recent times - those who abide by the maxim "be distinct or be extinct" - survival is a respectable target for 2008.