Oddbins 'still Castel's priority'

Castel opens more Nicolas stores but says it remains loyal to its main brand

Castel has dismissed claims it is aiming for an estate of 250 Nicolas stores in the UK as a result of its closure programme for Oddbins branches.

Castel has embarked on more Nicolas conversions - in addition to those carried out or announced earlier this year - fuelling more speculation that it wants to downgrade or dispose of Oddbins.

The latest conversions are all in the London area and include East Molesey, Southfields, Wimbledon, Richmond Hill, Twickenham and Teddington.

Oddbins is thought to have lost in the region of £8 million in the most recent financial year and has said that unprofitable branches will either close or convert to Nicolas.

Some managers and trade observers feel that Castel is cherry-picking the best shops to create a national footprint for the Nicolas brand and turning attention away from what was once the core business.

A spokeswoman said the balance of stores was about 70-30 in favour of Oddbins. "Nicolas is not going to be the dominant brand," she said. "We're looking at Oddbins stores to see if they're profitable and if they're not we look to see what we can do with them. It's about finding the right stores in the right sites for the right rents."

Castel repeated its intention to retain Oddbins, and is known to have rebuffed recent offers for the business. It has recently opened a new Oddbins store on the Wirral and launched a range of wines branded Oddbins Selection (see box), but staff have been shocked to see the ­Oddbins name disappear from locations such as Bath, Henley, Shrewsbury, Alderley Edge and Winchester.

One manager told OLN that some area managers had seen the number of stores under their stewardship cut by almost half and branches were reducing opening hours. "We have to single-man quite a lot more which is no good when we're being asked to find wholesale clients," he said.

"There seems to be no cohesive business plan. Castel has never been able to embrace the ethos of the company."

He said stores which were struggling to be profitable would do worse with the Nicolas fascia. "If you're not selling beer and cigarettes as well as wine, a lot of the locals will just go up the road to Tesco."

Own-label classics from France

Oddbins has launched six own-label wines from classic French appellations. The brand is called Oddbins Selection and ranges from a Bordeaux 2006 at £5.99 to a Châteauneuf du Pape at £12.99. Also in the line-up is Bourgogne Rouge 2006 (£6.99), Pouilly Fumé 2006 (£8.99), Chablis 2006 (£9.99) and Sancerre 2006 (£9.99).

A spokeswoman for Oddbins said: "In creating this range of own-label wines, our buyers and winemakers have continued our mission to uncover the very best wines from around the world - those that serve as benchmarks. They have endeavoured to bring the very best level of quality and style of those French appellations at unbeatable value."

Customers will be able to get 10 per cent off six bottles and 20 per cent off 12 bottles. The entire range is available on Oddbins' website.