The secret’s in the timing

What do you do if you’ve got 15 wine shops that are already performing well – but you need a new name, a new concept, a new range and a new look??If you’re Benoit Thouvenin, new owner of the former Nicolas shops outside the M25, you’ll be racing up and down the country, getting to know your staff and asking them for their input in every area of your new venture. And you will be preparing your palate for some heavyweight tasting in the months to come.

Thouvenin left Nicolas owner Castel to set up Spirited Wine and take on the estate outside the M25 after the company realised its French-only concept wasn’t working beyond London.

The move came 11 years after he joined Castel from a catering background. He first set up Nicolas’s successful shop-cum-wine bar in Canary Wharf, then concentrated more on retail as Castel moved its focus in that direction. He worked for both Nicolas and Oddbins, where he eventually signed the deal that saw Simon Baile take over the operation in summer 2008.

He tells OLN about his plans.

Why did you decide to set up your own business?It was the next step in my personal career, so I seized the opportunity presented. I think you always feel that at some stage in your life you have to have your own business and do your own thing. I felt it was the right time and right way to do it.

Why wasn’t Nicolas working outside London?Nicolas is a very niche market for French wine. The concept is excellent for London, which is probably more cosmopolitan than towns outside the M25. I feel that in London you have got the choice – if you don’t like Nicolas you can go next door – there’s always another off-licence nearby.

In some of the shops we have taken on, there is no other off-licence immediately nearby. If people can’t find what they want in the town centre they may look for it outside – and for us that is a lost customer. I think it is more because of the shopping experience around the stores than because of us precisely.

What will your relationship be with Castel?I will have the opportunity to keep sourcing some of its products if I like, but there is nothing written. It is purely a commercial agreement – the purchase of the properties hasn’t been attached to any condition. The main thing for me was to keep the name, and Castel very graciously gave me that opportunity. It was very important to keep the Nicolas brand for Christmas. I felt changing the brand three months before Christmas would have been counterproductive.

Your shops are spread across Britain. Does that make things difficult for you?We have got three heartlands – the south, north and Scotland. It is a bit spread out all over the country but I feel there is great opportunity to increase.

So you’re planning to grow the chain?I would like to. It will depend on opportunities regarding landlords and small businesses that closed for various reasons. Ideally, over the coming 18 months, I would like to add maybe two more in Scotland and one or two in the north to give us the feeling of being more like a group in that area. In the south there is already quite a good structure – there are already eight stores together so there is probably less need to search as intensively as in the north.

What will the new concept

ook like?We will change the look and feel of the stores. At the moment I’m caught between two things, which I will decide in the next two months: is it best to just change the fascia, or should I do store-by-store over the next 12 months? I haven’t come to a conclusion yet.

We will be doing everything at the beginning of 2011. The inside of stores will be a longer process – that should take about the same length of time as changing the products. The first 18 months will be very important, from the day I purchased the stores a couple of months ago to Christmas 2012, when I think the final concept will be ready.

Will you take the chain more in the direction of Oddbins than Nicolas?I don’t want to try to copy anything because there’s no need for that but, equally, I don’t want to say I’ll create something new, as I think that would be too presumptuous of me.

I will try to find the best way into the local area, find out what the market around the store is like and try to have a bespoke offer.

How do you see the future of specialist off-licence chains?I think service and advice are where we can make a difference. Nowadays we can even find some very specific wines in supermarkets.

I think it is still important for us to try ?to look for really specific products where we’re going to make a difference and launch new products, but the basics of the everyday business are advice and service. To me that is very important.

I think we have got a great opportunity now to restart businesses, taking the best from the past and trying to grow a new estate – but not to do what Threshers did and try to eat any competition.

I think it was a bit dangerous when it had three stores in the same street because it purchased the competition.

I think the market will be wiser now. There won’t be another explosion of one or two companies purchasing everybody else.

What are your views on the pricing debate?I think every business should be obliged not to sell their products at less than they paid for them. It’s very important that they can compete.

It is already hard to compete with stores that have very big buying power, and on top of that, if they are able to sell at a loss it becomes very unfair. For me the biggest thing is that every­body can compete fairly.

If I start selling everything at a loss we wouldn’t be able to survive – no local business can. Making a loss on selling spirits or wine and then charging three times the normal price for a pint of milk is not fair.

So do you support minimum pricing or a ban on below-cost selling?A ban on below-cost, not minimum pricing because then it’s not equal. It has to be fair for everybody, and the only thing that is fair is to make sure all their costs are covered when they sell the product. I think the minimum price should be the price of purchase plus duty and VAT at least, without taking into account the cost of staff and everything else.

Do you think that would be enforceable?It should work on the fact that we have to make sure we don’t go below what it costs the retailer to purchase, and then there could be spot checks.

People could just come in and check, like they sometimes do for licensing issues – check you are doing your job properly. Every retailer has to put everything in place to make sure staff don’t sell against the law.

What do you think of the new government?Whichever government is in, there is always talk about how to control people who are drinking over the limit or behaving badly after drinking. As a small business we have a great opportunity to control more to whom we are selling.

I think the problem with drink doesn’t come from specialist off-licences. That is why whichever step the government is to take, it shouldn’t be against people like us who are proud of our business. We are not selling products too cheaply for people to get drunk without spending a huge amount of money.

So, if the government wants to hit anyone it should hit where the problems come from.

What is the difference between wine shops in France and the UK?Every shop is different, but [in general] I can’t see there is going to be that much difference between the two. There are some slight twists, but nothing fundamental I think.

So what’s in store for you over the coming weeks?I am travelling a lot at the moment, until we get bigger and can have area managers. I like it – being in touch with people is crucial, as is knowing your staff. There is nothing worse than your boss shaking your hand and not remembering your name.