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Multiple specialists

The off-licence is the ultimate convenience store-more so than Tesco

Despite an attempt early this year to fund the future through a sale-and-leaseback deal on nearly 100 freehold properties, the 162-year-old family firm came to the end of the line by March.

Unwins is now in the hands of DM Private Equity.  Director David Massey is leading the team until a new chief executive is selected in the coming months.  He believes that the estate can return to profitability in short order; in fact, he plans to have Unwins ready for flotation in two years.

Such confidence reflects what he sees as an inherent strength of the offlicence specialist.  "The supermarket erosion of specialist market share has probably started to tail off," he said.

"And the reason is that the off-licence is the ultimate convenience store – even more so than, say, Tesco Metro.  For example, how often do you face a queue at an off-licence? And, furthermore, how often does someone go into an offlicence and not buy something? That’s why there is a clear opportunity in this sector."

Massey is also clear about how he plans to exploit that opportunity. "Our market is served by being a local offlicence.  The average Unwins customer travels less than two miles to shop there, and the vast majority of those purchases are consumed within two hours.

These people go to the off-licence for cold beer and occasional bottles of wine.  So we need to supply those top-up purchases and distress purchases.  Unwins needs to have a wide range of products, especially chilled products, to serve that customer."

However, the Phillips Newman experiment will go no further.  "I like the Phillips Newman brand," said Massey.  "But the cost of these store refurbishments is relatively high, and we need to consider the best use of our capital.

I believe that this money is better spent in other parts of the estate at the moment." Massey also feels strongly about the role staff will play in advancing the fortunes of Unwins.

"Right now there is no relationship between performance at the shop and pay, and that needs to be changed in short order."  So it seems that, alongside Thresher, Unwins is embracing a period of significant change.

And while change in itself does not guarantee prosperity (or even solvency), it is clear that the specialist channel needs dynamic effort to capture a greater share of the off-licence market.

As the IWSR noted earlier this year, the tide of British consumption is rising.  Specialists will either ride that wave or drown under it.

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