Oddbins got caught in No Man’s Land

Even as the ice caps melt, the world is becoming an increasingly polarised place. Nuance and rationale get bested by bombast and dogma; every disagreement seems irreconcilable. The middle ground has become No Man’s Land. Such polarisation was all too evident in recent discussions about Oddbins going into administration. While the response was almost universally sympathetic within the wine trade, the debate on social media became rapidly antithetical when Brexit was mooted as a determining factor.

Despite the strength of conviction on both sides, the world, unlike wine grapes, is never simply black and white. The truth almost always lies somewhere in between.

The difficulties facing Oddbins were caused by multiple factors. Unfavourable exchange rates have made wine more expensive to import. Rising costs (in staff wages, business rates, rent and duty) increased overheads and compressed margins. Competition is fierce, especially from the high-volume, low-price discount supermarkets, while the internet has vastly increased shopping options for everyone. Furthermore, overall consumer spending is depressed – perhaps, in wine’s case, partly because of the movement against alcohol, but perhaps in general because of uncertainty over, yes, Brexit.

Yet all wine shops are experiencing the same pressures without necessarily falling into administration. Was Oddbins badly managed? I suspect not. My impression from the creativity of the range and the experience in the shops was that the company was doing everything possible to succeed in bringing interesting wines at fair prices to high street locations.

Laudable though that objective may be, it sounds rather like another definition of the middle ground. Oddbins was caught between supermarkets and their low-priced wines at one end and fine wine merchants at the other. It’s a tough battleground, although a vanguard of independent wine shops has proved that it can be navigated successfully in recent years. For a medium-sized chain such as Oddbins, however, it’s evidently more perilous.

Some see the declining footfall and high costs of the high street as terminal. Others believe that bricks and mortar shops still have a chance if they specialise rather than generalise. What’s clear is that nobody knows for sure, and it is this uncertainty that is so difficult to manage. The world is undergoing rapid change, and many of the historic principles of retail are exactly that – historic.

That needn’t spell disaster, however. Britain has an enviable wine trade in many ways, with unparalleled diversity, competitive pricing and, perhaps most of all, a huge concentration of expertise, experience and enthusiasm. The struggles of Oddbins (like Conviviality and First Quench before it) absolutely do not equate to the decline of the wine trade. Inevitably, it is more nuanced than that.

At the time of writing, Oddbins’ future remains uncertain. Hundreds of jobs are at stake, and some kind of rescue package might still be achieved – but right now, it is taking heavy fire in No Man’s Land, where only the few can survive. I sincerely hope it lives to fight another day.

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