Family-owned drinks retailer Unwins is set to sell off all or part of the business, citing the impossibility of competing with supermarkets as the reason.

The 160-year-old company, founded in London, made losses of £1m (€1.5m) last year, but has since shown a small profit.

Recent valuations of Unwins shops, mostly in London and the southeast of England, puts their value at around £27m (€40.4m) It is understood Oddbins or Threshers might be potential purchasers – or non-drinks retailers interested in prime high street locations.

Wine represents half of Unwins’ turnover, and the company has found it difficult to compete with the major supermarkets, where the average price of a bottle of wine is £3.79 (€5.7).

Sales of alcohol in the off-trade (ie outside restaurants, pubs and wine bars) is forecast to have risen 15% in the six years to 2006. Wine sales are expected to grow by 25% in the same period.

But, Unwins chair Michael Lunn said, ‘there is no doubt this growth is driven by the supermarkets.’ He said independents could make money in the mid-price sector (£5-12; €7.5-18) by providing a more personal and informed service, but Unwins needed a cash injection in order to stay in profit.

UK supermarkets Sainsburys and Tesco together account for 50% of all wine sold in the UK off trade. In retail as a whole, for every £8 spent in Britain, £1 is spent in Tesco.

Written by Adam Lechmere, and agencies