Bestway could take Bargain Booze back to its roots

Sir Anwar Pervez didn’t earn a place on The Sunday Times Rich List without spotting a good bargain – and in the fallout from the monumental collapse of Conviviality he’s got one in both name and spirit with the acquisition of Bargain Booze.

With administrators desperate to offload bits of a business whose market value had shrunk to nil, the Bestway chief was able to nick Bargain Booze for a song, the £7.5 million asking price just a fraction of it was sold for 12 years ago. To give some context, Conviviality paid £1.6 million five years ago, just for 22 Wine Rack shops. 

The Bestway deal throws in the hundreds of shops in the Bargain Booze franchise network, plus the company-owned stores and a high street brand name that has considerably more pull for consumers in the northern half of England than the southern-based drinks and financial media gives credit for. 

For many working-class people existing in gig-economy, zero-hours-contract, post-industrial Britain, Bargain Booze and shops occupying similar commercial space are not some sort of quaint post-modernist retailing irony, but important elements in being able to afford treats to relieve the drudge of everyday life while balancing the books.

When I first encountered Bargain Booze for DRN’s forerunner Off Licence News in the late 1980s it was a stack-it-high, sell-it-cheap wholesaler whose founders, Allan Whittle and Rob Mayor, had branched out by opening an off-licence next to their warehouse on an industrial estate in Sandbach. In pre-Google days, the only clue to its location for a London-based cub reporter was a dim recollection that it had gone up against more familiar nearby towns – Uttoxeter and Nantwich, I think – in a heat of It’s A Knockout.

Whittle and Mayor were dragooned by the PR people for Guinness into doing an interview so that the black stuff could get some coverage for its then-revolutionary canned draught” stout. They were friendly but clearly keen to get back to the business of selling beer rather than talking about it, the two things in those days before craft beer bars remaining mutually exclusive.

Over time, the business grew, then grew some more, expanding to a massive distribution centre on the main road into Crewe, but sticking mainly to what Whittle and Mayor knew best. Even with large head office buying, sales and marketing functions, confining the store estate almost entirely to franchises owned by individual entrepreneurs, who took all the risk, meant that their Bargain Booze remained at core a wholesaler, even if to the outside world it looked like an off-licence chain.

In feeling the need to buy a national wholesaler and specialist wine agency and importing firms, it seems entirely plausible that those pulling the strings on the PLC version of what eventually became Conviviality didn’t fully appreciate the essential nature of the Bargain Booze they’d inherited. The acquisitions gave Bargain Booze the buying benefits of the puffed-up Conviviality’s scale but at a price that arguably wasn’t worth paying.

You can bet the essence of Bargain Booze as a supplier to what are really independent stores is not lost on the Bestway owners. The deal brings more than 600 retailers into Bestway’s wholesaling orbit at a stroke and strengthens its hand with a range of marketable franchise brands to attract new members – and it does so at a time when many independents are reassessing their symbol group loyalties after the industry machinations of 2017 that saw the collapse of Palmer & Harvey, and multiples muscle in on independent territory with the Tesco acquisition of Booker and the Co-op buying Nisa and striking a supply deal with Costcutter.

There are opportunities for cost savings in the distribution network but Bestway’s history is more about growth than consolidation, and Bargain Booze franchisees may find a family business with its roots in the same commercial world as them more in tune with their needs than one where impressing the city and ramping up the share price were primary motivations.

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