Retailers defy high street pessimists

If you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, you’ll hopefully be living life to the full in the knowledge that there’s only 11 months to go until it’s all over. The idea that doomsday will be upon us in 2012 is a bit too depressing for glass-half-full types to believe and, personally, I’d rather back the argument that next year will bring new awakenings not dead ends. But, certainly, a lot can change in a year, and nowhere is this more evident than in retailing.

Last January, if the collective consciousness of the industry had to be summed up on a sandwich board, it probably would have proclaimed: “The end of the high street off-licence chain is nigh”.

But this year has started with some sector-affirming news that will banish the doom-mongers to the shadows and show it’s far too soon to write off the chains.

Even Rasputin couldn’t dispute hard facts like Majestic recently recording its best-ever Christmas and news that Bargain Booze is riding high on good profits, unveiled this week.

Far from reporting a depressed market, property agent Christies is equally upbeat and experiencing brisk business in off-licence sales on the back of renewed interest in the post-First Quench environment. None of the retailers who resurrected its former stores would say it’s been easy and neither would the more long-standing chains – even those making decent profits.

Despite the challenge of staying relevant to consumers, high street chains are managing it and are ambitious for growth.

Wine Rack, very much the jewel in First Quench’s rusty crown, is a case in point as it plots its expansion – setting its sights on 100 stores.

The timing of all these events dovetails neatly with our own annual review of the drinks retailing scene. Over the past year our pages have been full of stories charting the rise of new high street chains – as well as independents – and binding all these together in our Market Report solidifies the now widely held view that there is plenty of action beyond the supermarkets’ reach.

Historically, it’s been a major gripe of the trade that so much power rests in the hands of so few, and although no one is kidding themselves that the big retailers aren’t going to continue to be anything other than the driving force in the UK, the fact that there are new clusters of retailers for consumers – and suppliers – to explore can only be a healthy thing.

So while Tesco is busy dobbing Asda into advertising watchdogs, claiming its price comparison calculator is a “misleading” ploy, other retailers are quietly knuckling down to the task of marking out their territory and not making price the single denominator in the equation.

A year from now, far from being on the brink of apocalypse, these businesses are poised to gain the most from the vibrant landscape they are helping to create.