Oddbins – odd or just very clever?

As the Oddbins empire crumbled in 2011, a producer found itself on the receiving end of a rather nasty call from the retailer, demanding more wine when it still hadn’t paid for the last lot. It was a particularly unpleasant example of supplier relations going bad.

Much water has flowed under the retail bridge since then and credit to Ayo Akintola, who seems to be turning the new Oddbins ship into something worth steering.

He admits that the course has been harder than he thought, blaming a reticence among prospective franchisees to jump on board until they see the business is making money, and unrealistic expectations from independents who are looking to sell-up about how much their shops are worth.

He didn’t mention the competition in his business analysis, but subsequently became an unlikely protagonist in the debate over supplier dealings, most specifically Majestic’s.

He admitted to me that some suppliers were bemused by his interjection, with about 15% telling him they were confused or viewed it as a cynical ploy – and, to be fair, Akintola’s Oddbins has often been a bit of a PR stunt chaser. The remaining suppliers, he says, think he’s a great bloke for challenging the status quo and making a case for fair practices.

While he refuses to be held accountable for the decisions of the old Oddbins – where he was head of human resources but arguably a cog in a bigger machine – he concedes that the chain’s collapse contributed to problems for the trade and gave Majestic a shot in the arm. Along the way, Majestic gave jobs to some Oddbins staff and provided a welcome outlet for suppliers.

Majestic has since become more commercially savvy but encountered rumbles of discontent. Baiting the competition can be good sport, but Akintola knows it’s more than a game. It’s sending a message to producers that Oddbins has changed and is a retailer they can trust again. I’m sure there are already suppliers eagerly testing its principles in negotiations.

The whole issue is not a fight you can imagine Conviviality Retail boss Diana Hunter wading into, but, like Akintola, she knows the sector needs a strong Majestic – without it the City would have looked far less favourably on her own bid for investment.

It remains to be seen whether consumers respond to Majestic’s bad press with any discernible backlash. With customer numbers growing, and analysts backing it, the chain is making enviable gains – for now at least.

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