Farewell Oddbins?

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.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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14 Responses to Farewell Oddbins?

  1. I was a pretty big Oddbins fan while I was living in Pimlico around 2007-9 and went in there whenever I had more than a fiver to spend on a bottle.

    A (presumably) French guy and a Polish girl on the staff were really good: enthusiastic, approachable and friendly – better than the Supermarket equivalent, which was… well, nothing.

    They may have been well on their way downhill by this point, as you say, but I remember it being bloody good in there up until one Christmas where I got an unexpected bonus and (having no commitments at that point) decided to spend £100 on wine in one go, just because I could.

    Went in there asking for recommendations and came out with 12 bottles – had to take a friend to help me carry them back to the flat for our Christmas Cheese and Wine party. I felt SO flash for the first (and possibly only) time in my life. And you know what? Almost every bottle was a delight. Bizarrely, every time I went in there from that point on – throughout the following year, which I think was 2009 – there seemed to be less and less choice and fewer and fewer decent prices, to the point where it was no longer worth the extra trip after Sainsbury’s on the way home.

    I realise the above barely even qualifies as an anecdote, but THERE WE GO. I’d have loved a job in Oddbins a few years back…

    Nice post!


    • Henry says:

      You’re quite right Mr Vesky. I like to think that the whole company went down the pan after I left but the decline was not as precipitous as I make out. There are still lots of great things about Oddbins (though not the organic Muscadet which they are pushing at the moment which has an odd sweetness about it.)

  2. Nick Hussey says:

    You forget the rampant alcohol abuse. Most called it a commitment to tasting. I called it gin & tonics at 1pm, start on the beers at 4pm, wine tasting at 6pm. Cashing up was a task only managers could complete simply because they were grizzled enough to take the booze, so not drop the tills and still be able to count.

    I made some good friends there and learnt loads, but it was a dead end career-wise and I had a pot belly and humpback by the time I left at 28, having been attacked for defending the stock I would have to pay for if stolen.


  3. foureyesgood says:

    A crying shame. It’s a good thing there are now wine blogs for the uninitiated to learn about wine, although until there appears a way for us to taste the wines through the magical interweb, maybe it’s not quite the same…

    • Henry says:

      That’s the next step, read about wine and then instantly taste. All from the comfort of your own home. Wake up Jobs! When are you going to invent something we really want?

  4. Chaz Folkes says:

    Guildford’s Oddbins definitely lost its charm when Castel changed it to a branch of Nicolas. I have memories of the old Oddbins on the High Street when the employees were allowed to decorate the shop as they pleased – they once advertised New World wines with pictures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers painted on the windows…

    According to the people staffing the shop at the moment, Castel have now closed all the Nicolas shops outside the M25. The plus to this is that the Guildford premises have now been taken over by an independent company.

  5. Wine Rambler says:

    This may be a shock, but I think I only ever bought two bottles of wine at Oddbins. Why? Well, when I moved to the UK in 2007 I was lucky enough to live next to a great wine shop that had nice atmosphere, a great range and competent staff, plus its was not that much more expensive. Even then I got most of my wine shipped over from Germany (not just German wine, mind you), which was always cheaper and with way more choice, including the obscure wines, so quite frankly no shop could compete. So the only wines I would buy in a shop are random, unusual finds (recent ones include a 25 year old white wine or an 18 year old Californian Cabernet) of the type I have never seen at Oddbins. The shops I now sometimes walk past are just not exciting enough, nor are the cheap enough if that is what excites you. I guess I am just not the audience for anything but a specialist shop, and as far as Oddbin are concerned I seem to have arrived a few years too late.


  6. Henry says:

    Yes sadly you did miss the glory years, Torsten. They used to do a small but good quality range of German wines including, Von Buhl, Kunstler, Von Kesselstatt and occasionally Muller-Catoir. These sort of wines weren’t their core business but made visiting different shops exciting as you never knew what you might discover. Sometimes there were old vintages tucked away for the manager’s special customers. And shops like these were in almost every large town in Britain. Seems like another world.

  7. Wine Rambler says:

    That would be exactly the kind of thing that excites me, Henry. I still sometimes see German wines at Oddbins, but usually it is just a bottle of Leitz’s Eins, Zwei, Dry. The German range you mention would attract me to any shop. Shame, it seems I really missed the glory years…

  8. Richard says:

    You’re quite right about the ill effects of the vast difference between the company we all thought we were working for and the people who actually paid us. And if “despondent” is another way of saying “sunk in a nihilistic alcoholic gloom from sunrise to cashing up” then I agree with that as well. Once I’d realised how I’d been hoodwinked by the false promise of working as one of a devil-may-care band of bohemians who somehow made drinking nice wine rock and roll, it became difficult to sell it to all the people coming in the shop who wanted it to be true as well. People would keep coming in and asking for hidden bargains, assuming we were the sort of shop that had them, because the same people who sent us case after case of boring South African white to shift had also told them we had hundreds of hidden bargains. The liars. And as Nick says, dead-end career-wise.

    But I learnt a huge amount about wine from various managers, and quite a lot about how to run a promising city-centre venue into the ground from the many corporate accounts who did just that. And I got to draw on the windows with markers, and pretend that despite dressing like a manual worker on minimum wage I spent my leisure time swimming in rare malts and brushing my teeth in Pol Roger. I have many happy memories of Oddbins, or at least cheerful blurs where memories might have been once, and if they weren’t actionable I’d share them here. I did spend a week drawing sketches of a dystopian future Australia where gigantic robot kangaroos towed gargantuan hover-barges of grapes to a mile-wide whirlpool in the outback under the control of Peter Lehman’s frozen brain, which remained in outline on a number of boards in the storeroom, surrounded by the empty bottles of Peroni that had prevented their completion. I can see why more corporate-minded managers might have preferred that they be used to display useful information about the wine instead.

  9. Henry says:

    Thanks for stream of consciousness reminiscence, Richard. I can almost taste that early morning Moretti and hear the first phone call from Skippy at, god I can’t remember the name of his bar!

  10. Henry says:

    A former Oddbins employee has sent me the Deloitte & Touche creditors report. YOu can read it here: http://bit.ly/ejq8nl They owe £241,000 to Concha y Toro alone but it is their debts to small companies and even employees that are particularly sad.

  11. Pingback: A year in booze | Henry's World of Booze

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