Like Victor Kiam and Remington so with me and Oddbins. He liked the product so much he bought the company, I spent so much time in my local Oddbins in Headingley that I got a job there. It was meant to be stop gap after graduation but I ended up working for Oddbins for two years first in Leeds and then West London. So I was very saddened to read that the company is once again in financial trouble. It made me reflect on what it was that made Oddbins seem like such a unusual place in the late 90s:
Excellent wines – not funky, strange wines from small growers but good quality wines which were far better than those available in supermarkets and high-street rivals (who have all since disappeared.) And then there was the Greek range.
Good prices – no big discounts but prices generally comparable to supermarkets
Enthusiastic staff – they tended to employ graduates who were too eccentric for conventional employment. This meant that visiting an Oddbins shop was a hit-or-miss affair, sometimes you would get the wine equivalent of comic book guy from the Simpsons, but other times you would get infectious zeal for some strange new wine from Greece.
So what went wrong?
1) Price, a combination of heavy discounting by rivals and Castel’s (Oddbins new owners from 2001) insistence on raising the margin on every bottle made Oddbins seem an expensive place to shop. This would not have been a problem if the wines had been unusual enough but. .
2) Range, under Castel all the wacky wines from Greece were removed and replaced with dull offerings from Castel’s owned wineries. But I think this is to slightly to miss the point. Oddbins business was never based on selling strange wines, the Greek stuff actually sold very badly, it was in selling good wine from medium to large producers in Australia and Chile and co-ops from the South of France. As soon as supermarkets started doing the same, then Oddbins days were numbered.
3) Staff. Working for Oddbins was very badly paid but, when I worked there in the late 90s, there was a cult feel to the place. We were paid a pittance but we got an education in wine from fellow enthusiasts. The managers of the shops were allowed a lot of leeway to order wines that they liked. The wine in stacks on the shop floor was generally not on offer, or the most profitable wine in the range but something the staff really liked. I remember the manager of the Leeds branch went Bleasdale Franks Potts crazy. Almost no customer left without a bottle. This was a £9 wine in late 90s Yorkshire. Once the range became streamlined and discounting made all the shops the same there was no outlet for the creative energies of the staff. The enthusiasts started to leave or became despondent. Despondent staff don’t sell (have you been into your local Waterstone’s lately?) By the early 2000s Oddbins were employing people who had no interest in wine and saw it as just another shop job.
I look back fondly on those days but after leaving, I was never a regular customer again. The wines just seemed too expensive. I hope Oddbins don’t go under but sadly they are an anachronism. Most people buy their wine at supermarkets, mail order or, for esoteric wines, through specialist shops. When they are gone, I like to think that their legacy will be in the army of aimless graduates who were given focus to their lives by a bugeoning love of wine. The wine world is full of people like me who were shaped by their time at Oddbins. I wonder what will happen to them in future. They’ll probably turn to crime.
I’d like to end by asking readers to share their memories both good and bad of this great company or to violently disagree with me and tell me that there is life in the old dog yet.