According to the British publication Harpers, the UK retailer Oddbins seems to have closed its last store last week. Its metaphorical gravestone will bear the inscription 1963-2023, but behind that 60-year lifespan hangs a surprising range of tales that, when taken together, may have resonance beyond the British Isles.
The business was originally launched by an entrepreneurial 21 year-old called Ahmed Pochee whose Indian father had – remarkably for the time - overcome blindness to open the first Indian restaurant in Edinburgh. Ahmed, who had been hospitalised with meningitis, worked as a porter for a London wine merchant where he discovered that many of the restaurants and hotels in the UK capital had cellars full of undervalued wine.
With £600 - £10,500/$12,800 in modern money – borrowed from a friend of his father, Pochee junior bought some of this wine and sold it as 'odd bins'. Despite building an enthusiastic fan-base, a decade later the business suffered the first of what would be a series of financial collapses and was sold out of receivership to a Master of Wine called Nick Baile and Denis Ing who, between them, as Baile’s son, Nick, later recalled, had capital of just £20,000 (£208,000/$254,000, today).
Jazz and wine
The two men built on Pochee’s foundations to create a dynamic retailer with 400 employees, turnover of £27m and a reputation for selling an ever-changing range of good, unfamiliar wines from Southern France, Portugal and Spain. The shops stood apart from their competitors in being more approachable than most of Britain’s traditional merchants, with a permanent background of jazz and rock music and blackboards announcing new arrivals.
The business was, in Nick Baile’s carefully-selected words “for a time… very successful”, but not sufficiently to prevent the Canadian drinks giant Seagrams from snapping it up cheaply in 1984 when prospects for its survival were apparently far from bright. The new owners, saw the retailer as a route to market for their spirits and wine brands including Mumm and Perrier Jouët Champagne and Barton & Guestier Bordeaux as well as Sterling Vineyards in California which they acquired at around the same time, and Martell cognac which fell into their hands a couple of years later.
The timing of Seagrams’ Oddbins purchase was perfect. A young generation of Britons was just beginning to discover wine, thanks in great part to the Californian and Eastern European varietals and southern French wines that had begun to reach their market. The media lanscape was changing too. Jancis Robinson had recently launched her Drinkers Digest newsletter and television viewers were enjoying watching critics Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden using ludicrously colourful language to describe wines on the popular BBC Food & Drink programme. And – to declare an interest – I had just launched a consumer wine magazine whose unstated modus operandi was to publish the opposite of anything the then-Bordeaux-focused Decanter might be expected to do.
Free to roam
Under Seagrams’ hands-off ownership, Oddbins buyers roamed the world in search of exciting wines – almost single-handedly, for example, lighting the fuse that would eventually lead to Australia’s, New Zealand’s and Chile’s success in the UK.
The team also ramped up the ‘cool’ vibe that had been the hallmark of the chain under Pochee, Baile and Ing. The t-shirt-wearing staff were often wine-enthusiastic students who relished the chance to taste and buy at attractive discounts, while customers were the vinous counterparts of the music fans who had fallen love with the Virgin Records stores that allowed them to listen to new releases while lounging on beanbags. Oddbins stores were, in short, great places for wine lovers seeking a place to hang out and for anyone wanting to get their first foot on the ladder into the wine trade.
The brilliantly chosen range of 2,000 or so wines helped Oddbins to win no fewer than 12 Wine Merchant of the Year awards, all of which I was involved in presenting at glittering events attended by the great and good of the UK wine trade. The chain’s media success also forced Britain’s other retailers – including the supermarkets - to raise their game. From around 1985 to 2000, the UK was the centre of the world wine trade and Oddbins seemed to be its driving force.
But we Oddbins fans were all too easily seduced by what we saw in the shops and at the press tastings to question the mechanism behind it all. As David Isaacs, the chain’s former buying and marketing director noted later:
“Little concern was shown for our profits - it was all about ‘upstream’ profits, the profit Seagram made on selling products through our estate… Cash flow, return on equity, forget it - how much Mumm Champagne you had sold was important. The range - while loved by the journalists - was too large. No self-funding organisation could afford to fund it. While the journalists waxed lyrical about fine wines and the eclectic range the sad fact is that even at Oddbins the vast majority did not earn their shelf space.”
No one can say how long this situation might have continued, but in the 1990s, the Bronfman family, owners of a third of Seagrams’ shares, increasingly switched their attention to the movie and music businesses and, in 1997, after 13 years in their hands, the chain was once again for sale.
After abortive discussions with a range of possible suitors, including Tesco, a buyer was finally found in 2001, in the shape of Castel, the huge French producer and owner of the Nicolas retail chain, who, like Seagrams, clearly saw the 250 or so Oddbins stores as an outlet for their wines. The Oddbins management at the time made their own bid for the business. Isaacs who led this effort recalled that it was “making little or no retail profit… as a real stand-alone [concern] given its trading formula it never was going to be a money maker.”
Castel’s subsequent experience did nothing to contradict Isaacs’ view and after just seven years, they happily offloaded their British venture to Nick Baile who clearly relished the prospect of picking up where his father had left off.
Sadly, his three-year tenure was the briefest of all, ending in the financial collapse of the business in 2011 with debts of £20m. The team that bought the business out of administration ran it until they, in turn, hit the buffers again in 2019. Four years later, the story, after another collapse is apparently finally over.
Looked at in the round, there are two very different ways of looking at the Oddbins saga. On the one hand there is the story of a chain of – at its peak – heading for 300 stores that helped to enthuse a generation of British wine drinkers and to introduce them to styles they’d never have encountered. A business that made wine fun, through tastings involving producers and attracting an audience of 20-40 year-olds, and one that trained up countless men and women many of whom who went on to become Masters of Wine and prominent members of the industry.
On the other, there’s the harsh reality of an enterprise that never really managed to trade sufficiently profitably for any consistent period of time. Like a theatrical production that closed within weeks despite good reviews, Oddbins was the epitome of what the French call a ‘succès d’estime’. Perhaps that, ultimately should be its epitaph. And a warning to those who imagine that shops with enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff, and a great range of well-chosen bottles will automatically be competitive in a world of customers who are happy to do their wine shopping in supermarkets.
Perhaps if Oddbins had adopted the US chain Total's clever use of private labels, it might have fared better. But perhaps that model owes some of its success to being in the US rather than the UK. Unfortunately, now we are unlikely ever to know.