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19 February, 2010

I read an interesting article this week on the Management Today website entitled “The death of the off-licence?” Don’t worry, someone pointed it out to me – I don’t go searching for that sort of thing very often.

It was a fairly salutary look at the state of the off-licence market, post-First Quench. Overall, there is a clear message to be taken from the article, and it won’t come as a surprise to anyone. In summary: you can’t beat the supermarkets, so don’t try.

There’s a lot to be said for this philos­ophy – and it’s something I’ve always believed in. As you might guess from the question mark in the title, it isn’t actually sounding the death knell for independent drinks retailing, although it is certainly organising a wake for certain parts of it.

There seems to be a feeling overall that the era of high street drinks retailing is coming to an end. I’m not sure I’d totally agree with that, but with the increasing encroachment of the big four’s stores into the high street in various Express or Local guises, it’s clear the era of crappy, disinterested chains is over.

Parallels are always drawn between?independent drinks retailing and other past stalwarts of the high street – fishmongers, butchers and the like. The thing is, I’m not sure these businesses have really died out. We used to have a butcher very close to the shop in Headingley. I say “used to”, because it’s now a dry cleaner. But it wasn’t an unsuccessful business – far from it. It was always busy, but when the butcher retired, he simply decided to turn the key in the lock and stop trading.

It’s not as if people won’t travel to the right location if the offering is good enough – we have customers who regularly travel 50 miles to shop with us. In fact, if I fancy a really good bit of beef, there’s a butcher in Leeds I drive to – no matter that he’s about 10 miles from my house. If the offering is good enough, people will come.

So where does that leave the high street? Well, if Oddbins can hang on long enough to become good again, it seems as though it will be laughing, being the only dedicated off-licence chain with a high street presence. Both its retail and local wholesale operations are interesting enough to drive people through the doors, and it looks as though it is going to succeed, against long odds but with an unexpected removal of competition.

What of the independents? Well, clearly the sector is starting to thrive again. So if Oddbins is going to turn it around, and the independents are doing well, why suggest the off-licence is dead??It’s because it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that just before its demise, First Quench premises weren’t off-

icences any more. Sure, they were shops which sold alcohol, but there wasn’t the coherence of vision that makes for a good chain, or even a good business. It had lost its way and picked a fight with the big boys, and that’s why it failed.

So the title of the article should perhaps have been “Have we all forgotten what an off-licence actually is?” Good off-licences are as much about a lifestyle choice as they are a healthy balance sheet and this is why the independent sector is thriving, and why Oddbins might actually make a go of it. Fun, integrity, passion and, above all, personality – without those, the sector may as well be dead.




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