Innovative tactics help refresh trade

25 January, 2008

The multiple specialists struggle gamely on as conditions remain tough. Rebecca Evans reports on life for the high street heroes

Last year was a turbulent one for specialist retailers, which continued to battle the supermarkets to keep, let alone grow, their market share.

The re were changes of ownership and management, radical estate restructuring and

very disappointing sales figures for some.

Wine Cellar, Bargain Booze and Thresher Group all moved further into convenience (see page 24),

while insisting that stand-alone drinks retailing continues to be just as important.

Chains employed a slew of tactics to attract consumers back, with

Thresher Group

pushing ahead with a plan to franchise out key shops. By September, it had decided to put the scheme on hold, having achieved around 150 of its 600 planned conversions.

The group's customer discount vouchers, circulated by e-mail and press, continued into 2007, and its most recent Christmas campaign brought customers into shops in droves, according to managers contacted by OLN.

It also revamped

its Origin and Radcliffe's brands and introduced a World Beer range in April alongside a direct delivery scheme in conjunction with SIBA.

Since changing ownership and chief executives in September, Thresher Group has kept its head below the parapet,

but is expected to announce plans to revitalise the business soon.

It will doubtless want to improve on its most recent financial results (to July 06), which show profits of £20.7 million (from £781 million sales), but

propped up by the sale of £40.4 million worth of freehold properties.

Bargain Booze branched out into convenience during 2007 but joint managing director Matthew Hughes insists

pure drinks retailing

remains just as important in the company's plans. While Bargain Booze plans to add to its 600-strong franchise operation with 60


Convenience stores this year, it will open an equal number of dedicated drinks shops, Hughes says.

Wine Cellar continued to struggle to turn its business around, four years after buying it from receivers. Managing director Paul Gaskell left the business in April and Carole Ormerod took over the reins. The retailer's losses to Jan 2007 were £1.45 million.

Convenience became more of a focus for Wine Cellar, with Simply Food & Drinks and the Martin McColl/Booze Buster roll-out taking precedence, but trading director Steve Parker says specialists can still survive, and thrive, if the location is right.

While fellow multiple specialists struggled, Majestic's runaway success story continued in 2007

when it record ed sales and profit growth in both its full-year and interim results. Majestic has truly cracked the notion of selling up, with average bottle price and spend per customer creeping up steadily each year. Its out-of-town, bulk-selling formula and knowledgeable staff are still winners with the wine-buying public, and consumer caution aside, the success story looks set to continue into 2008.

Chief executive Tim How plans

a further 200 stores in Britain over the next five years

and is

looking to convert old pubs with "plenty of open floorspace".

Oddbins' owner Castel completed its programme of converting some

stores to the French-focused Nicolas format, with the estate now

at 173 Oddbins shops and 82

Nicolas. Head office functions for

both were merged, and Oddbins' sales director Andy Gadsby

said the company planned to operate Oddbins and Nicolas as "two brands under one umbrella".

But Gadsby resigned just before Christmas - the second high-profile loss in 2007 following head buyer Emma Nichols' departure in November. National press reports about a meeting between Castel and Thresher Group owner

Vision Capital prompted speculation about a merger or buy-out. Both companies denied this, and said discussions centred around trading formats for the UK market. But speculation has continued, and an opportunity to offload the loss-making Oddbins must surely look attractive to its French owners.

Key developments 2007


Managing director Paul Gaskell leaves Wine Cellar. Carole Ormerod takes the reins.


Bargain Booze launches Select Convenience with 55 per cent grocery and 45 per cent licensed lines.

Thresher Group bought by private equity firm Vision Capital.


Thresher Group reveals plans to convert†620 stores to micro-convenience format by the end of 2008, and suspends applications for franchise scheme.

Chief executive Roger Whiteside leaves the business, to be replaced by Yvonne Rankin, formerly of global retailer AS Watson.


Oddbins head buyer Emma Nichols leaves the company.


Oddbins sales director Andy Gadsby quits his role.

Hot prospects for 2008

Laithwaites' retail estate has grown slowly but surely, with little publicity and fuss. There are now 10 Laithwaites shops, with nine dotted around the south east and one in Solihull, West Midlands. The company is reluctant to reveal its retail expansion plans, but more are sure to spring up over the next year. The company seems

so far to have been successful in translating its successful upmarket mail order and internet business to its retail shops.

Yorkshire-based retailer Rhythm & Booze - described by managing director Martin Swaine as the "poor man's Oddbins" - plans to expand its 35-shop estate by

up to 10 shops by the end of 2008. Having put a hold on a proposed link-up with discounter Fulton's, Swaine plans to focus purely on drinks retailing for the time being, with shop revamps planned for the next few months. "I think you should stick to do what you do best, and do it well," Swaine says. Having said that, he has not given up completely on the idea of running drinks concessions within other people's stores, but this time he'll look for a mid-range convenience retailer rather than a discounter. A range review is planned

and Swaine hopes to replace some branded wines with offerings from smaller, more interesting producers.

Malt specialist The Whisky Shop expanded into London last year with the opening of its 13th shop in the City's Paternoster Square. Owner Glenkeir is likely to continue its steady growth, eyeing up further prime sites over the next 12 months.

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