I am a recent employee of Oddbins and wanted to offer an insider's balanced response to your observations.
We were warned in an internal e-mail that your article was being printed and we should disregard it but, of course, that was like a red rag to a bull so we all read it anyway. On the whole it is a very fair and balanced article but does contain one major misconception. The only reason that Oddbins branches are being closed down, even if they are on the best sites, is that they are unprofitable.
They are being turned into Nicolas stores to see if they can make a profit. If they are not profitable they too will be closed down. The major reason some stores are not profitable is that their rents are astronomical. I know of one store in a prosperous Home Counties market town which is being forced to close because its rent is as high as a store in the West End of London. It does not help that Castel do es not have control of most of the rents on its shops.
With regard to the Nicolas stores, they would seem to be an excuse for Castel to have a higher proportion of its wines in one place rather than in Oddbins. I believe this typically arrogant French approach is mistaken, because wine drinkers in this country in the 21st century are well-travelled and much more sophisticated than they are given credit for and demand a selection of wines from around the world, not just from one country.
Oddbins has a fantastic range of interesting wines which sometimes sell too well - so well, in fact, that we can't get hold of them due to our new capping system. This is as frustrating for us as it is for our customers who no doubt are shopping elsewhere to find the wine they want. On the other hand, we are overstocked with wines from Castel which our customers are not interested in buying. It would seem that the only reason Castel bought Oddbins was to have an outlet in the UK where it could sell its wine, yet it already had Nicolas before it bought Oddbins, so why not expand those stores instead of paying over the mark for Oddbins? This has resulted in massive underinvestment in the shops, the staff and the range.
Our climate is warming up and we are now making award-winning sparkling wine in this country, yet we stock no English wine at all when people are suddenly getting interested in buying it for the first time in years.
Don't get me wrong - I love working at Oddbins. The training has been fantastic, my colleagues are brilliant and our branch is well regarded in our local area. However, Oddbins is caught in a classic market squeeze between Majestic, whose business model, though inflexible, seems to work, and the discounting retailers such as Threshers and the supermarkets who can pile it high and sell it cheap.
As hard as we all work - and the hours are long and anti social - it would seem Oddbins' problems lie not with its wine or staff but with the management in the UK and ultimately Castel, whose strategy in concentrating mainly on its own wines and Nicolas stores has led to the current unfortunate situation. Maybe it is time for Castel to invest substantially in Oddbins or sell us to someone who can invest in the company and manage it better.