Interview: Oddbins eyes digital talent from rival retailer

Drinks retailer Oddbins is focused on building a new online proposition that can carry the personality of its stores into eCommerce, and managing director Ayo Akintola says the small digital talent pool in retail means his "Plan A" is to court staff from rival Naked Wines, due to their combined tech and wine expertise.

It is four years since Oddbins' rebirth under the ownership of European Food Brokers, following its collapse under a previous regime in April 2011. The shareholders have now given Akintola the go-ahead to make a concerted investment in online retail to help compliment the stability established across the business's store portfolio over the last four years.

"If we do want to exist in this space we do need a strong, viable online proposition," Akintola commented.

"Anyone can put up a website that sells wine, but how can we take what we actually have in store – the feel, the personality of the brand – and bring it online? It sounds easy but it is one of the most difficult things you can actually try and do."

Akintola was talking to Essential Retail, following an article in The Guardian claimed Oddbins had sent personalised messages to key members of the Naked Wines workforce, encouraging them to consider working for the London-based retailer. So is that what happened?

"Yes I did it," he revealed.

"We wrote to them and said we'd like to have a conversation with them. We went the slightly creative way of sending them love letters. I'm getting some flak from the industry about poaching staff, but there are different ways in which you can poach from a rival company."

Akintola said Oddbins has not followed "the lift" approach, which he described as talking to a senior person in a business and convincing them to move across with their entire staff. Instead, Oddbins has approached staff on an individual basis.

Naked Wines' recent acquisition by Majestic Wine, which resulted in the smaller company's CEO Rowan Gormley taking on the leadership role at the larger business, has drawn attention to the digital strength of Naked Wines, which since forming in 2008 has created a community of wine lovers whose custom helps funds independent vineyards around the world.

Periods immediately following mergers and acquisitions typically bring uncertainty, so Oddbins – along with at least two other non-wine specialist retailers, according to Akintola – are courting Naked staff in the hope they can tempt them to pastures new.

"You look at the Naked staff and they are very good at what I class as consumer engagement," the Oddbins boss noted.

"They have nailed it. Until they were acquired by Majestic there was not a chance in hell that we could have poached anyone from Naked because the culture was very strong."

Oddbins' online retailing division has grown by 50% annually over the last three years, but Akintola admits this sales expansion came from a low base because the business's most recent focus has been on re-establishing the brand's messaging, developing its growing store portfolio, and removing "the mess that had clouded the Oddbins brand for a very long time" preceding its administration.

The retailer now has a three-year plan to take the organisation in a new digital direction, but senior management are looking to create a point of difference online that matches the brand's irreverent marketing message, which is displayed in its customer emails and in-store signage.

"I'm trying to play with the big boys in terms of getting my team in place, but I'm not looking to copy the Naked model," said Akintola.

"What I'm trying to do is take Oddbins, which works in the bricks and mortar setting, and develop an online model that represents it. Our irreverence resonates with a lot of people who shop with us, but the challenge for the new team we're trying to bring together is how to get this out to more people."

In terms of the role ahead for any new Oddbins recruits, he added: "They need to be clever, intelligent and they need to build a whole new proposition from the ground up. It'll involve having a new website obviously, but they'll be involved right from design, the infrastructure and everything we put around it."

The situation whereby Oddbins is publically courting a rival retailer's staff is somewhat unusual, but it is something that inevitably goes on behind the scenes across various industries.

It is also indicative of the current digital skills shortage in retail, which Akintola says favours the pool of talent that has the capability to create engaging online customer propositions and build the infrastructure to support it. "It is a sellers' market," he admits.

Oddbins has been looking to train staff internally on the skills that are required for 21st-century business, but wider industry work is seemingly required to plug the perceived skills gap.

"If you talk about education, what can the government actually do? They mess up everything any way!" he explained.

"It's going to come from the retail industry itself, which will need to invest and develop talent, otherwise it'll be a significant hindrance and we'll all be fighting around for the same people. Without the training we're going to be playing musical chairs for some time."

Akintola understands that Naked Wines and new parent company Majestic are not going to simply hand him their staff, and he is aware that he is only at the start of a journey to build a new eCommerce team, so what happens if he is unable to attract the digital wine expertise he desires?

"Plan B is to get people with the technical skills in place and we'll have to develop the wine skills. Come hell or high water we will get a team in place to push our growth online."

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