A second coming for Oddbins?

28 August, 2008

With a delicious sense of timing, Oddbins is launching a promotion entitled Expect the Unexpected on Sept 1. When it came up with the tagline, the company's previous owner, Castel, was referring to a line-up of unusual wines rather than the sale of the business, but it couldn't be more appropriate. No one outside the senior management of Castel and Ex Cellar could have predicted what happened earlier this month:

the son of a previous Oddbins owner stepping in

to rescue the ailing off-licence chain, much as his father did in 1973.

When did Castel decide to sell Oddbins? Readers

may remember that as recently as May last year, the French wine giant said

it was "committed" to the future of the chain. It never really looked that way . Since it bought Oddbins in 2002, Castel has slimmed down the estate from 246 to 158 stores and struggled to understand what made the business unique: a mixture of quirkiness, brilliance, great staff and hands-off management.

The official line when Castel converted 11 Oddbins

in 2006 and a further 50 last year was that they were unprofitable and

Nicolas stood more chance of success in th ose locations. I always found it hard to believe that Oddbins was failing in

St Albans, Bath, Haslemere, Winchester and Henley-on-Thames. And if it was, why should an over-priced and generally not very good French chain succeed

My suspicion is that the stores were anything but failures and

Castel cherry-picked the best ones. Was this part of a master plan

Given Castel's bumbling performance over the past six years, and the inflated sum it paid for the business , it seems unlikely. As I wrote in these pages at the time, I believe

Castel decided to sell Oddbins when it converted the bulk of those stores last year. It was "committed" to Oddbins in the way that a philanderer is committed to his long-suffering wife.

Not before time, Castel's ownership of Oddbins

- promising at first but ultimately a missed opportunity - has ended. But what now? Like some bizarre post-divorce couple, Oddbins and Nicolas continue to inhabit the same premises in Wimbledon, although it looks as if the latter will move out over the next few months. It will be interesting to see if Nicolas succeeds as a stand-alone chain. To do so, it drastically needs to improve the quality of its wine range and reduce its margins.

What should Ex Cellar's Simon Baile - who bought Oddbins with brother-in-law Henry Young - do to revitalise one of the British high street's great brands? As a wine retailer with Oddbins in his veins,

Baile certainly has the right credentials. He says he wasn't expecting to be given the chance to buy the whole chain, but regards it as a "fantastic opportunity".

However upbeat he may be, the new management will have to work very hard to reverse losses of £8.6 million in Oddbins' last published accounts.

Baile will have to make some hard-nosed decisions, not least about

closures. There are some fantastic branches in the estate - Battersea, Holborn, Farringdon, Leeds, Surbiton and Notting Hill Gate - but between 15 and 20 that are struggling at present. Baile says he will smarten up the stores and concentrate on the "basics of good retailing": delivery, good staff and the right products.

Talking of which,

he has a lot of old stock to shift, some of it distinctly underwhelming. Under the previous regime, all

Oddbins' French wines were sourced by Castel in Paris, with

mixed results. The decision to offer some 600 products on a

30%-off basis from Aug 15 should clear

a few unwanted cases, but it will be a while before Baile and his buy ers (Richard Verney, Stuart Cole, Julie Buckley and Claire Graham) can begin to fashion a range that reflects Oddbins' new priorities.

Th e priorities are two-fold: to focus on wines from small, independent producers and to increase the fine wine range. The Oddbins Selection, which was roundly criticised by many journalists, will remain, although the source

may change. "Why kick something that's working into touch?" asks Baile. "The figures are not actually that bad." For all that, Baile thinks

own-label wines "weaken the Oddbins message". I'd be tempted to dump the selection forthwith.

Two things will determine the success of Oddbins under its new owners. The first is securing the support of

staff to recreate what Baile calls "some of the old Oddbins ethos, but in a more up-to-date way". Giving managers more autonomy

would be a good start.

The second, arguably more important, thing is to resurrect the reputation of Oddbins' wine range. A well-chosen, innovative list that is light on me-too brands and heavy on unusual, limited-quantity offerings won't be easy to maintain in the current retailing climate, but I think customers will respond positively if the wines are good enough. Let's hope so, because, now more than ever, we need a revitalised Oddbins.

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