Whole Foods Market opened in London’s trendy High Street Kensington to a fanfare last June.
After the opening, the store was busy for many weeks, although a large number of shoppers were often suited-and-booted executives from other UK grocers.
But, following the early hype, customer traffic seemed to trail off substantially over the summer and much of the second half of last year, although one store worker told Retail Week last week that this was because a large number of wealthy foreign inhabitants in the area go for extended holidays.
In fact, a visit by Retail Week to the store last Sunday found a healthy flow of customers enjoying the store’s eateries and cafes, as well as the smorgasbord of food on offer. Granted, Sunday is the day when the areas well-heeled mum and dads spend a bit of quality time with their kids in Whole Foods Market and younger clientele sip a latté while typing away on their laptops.
Many in the sector believe that its debut store could be making heavy losses, given the high rental costs of its 85,000 sq ft store and potentially high food wastage, and the modest customer traffic relative to the scale of its grandiose shelves of sumptuous food.
But Retail Week saw enough from its latest trip to the store, overturning some of our initial scepticism, to believe that Whole Foods could ultimately find a brethren of adoring consumers in the UK. The retailer will most definitely need to find sites with decent sized car parks– a key weakness of its debut London store is that it does not have a car park, although customers can get a discount at the nearby NCP car park when they spend more than£100 in the shop.
Make no mistake though, Whole Foods has big plans for the UK. Store staff told Retail Week that the retailer is “looking for sites all over the UK”. Industry sources have linked Whole Foods to sites in London’s City, docklands banking district Canary Wharf, Edinburgh, Bristol and Manchester, but nothing has been confirmed.
Further confirmation of its ambitions came in the shape of Retail Week’s revelation last week that it has widened its search.
It has hired a further two property agencies to search for out-of-town locations, including prime A1 retail parks. Agencies Green & Partners and Gilbert have been instructed to search for sites between 20,000 and 75,000 sq ft, within an hour’s drive from central London. Another sign of its commitment to the UK was the hiring of former Bank Fashion property director Nina Shores to spearhead its UK expansion.
Given the relatively high price of its shopping basket, it will have to open stores in affluent areas. Some standard items, such as packaged salads and strawberries, are not a million miles away from Waitrose, but it’s fair to say its target audience is most definitely ABs.
However, if the buzz in its London store last Sunday is anything to go by, the upmarket ethical grocer could become the most significant new entrant into the UK grocery market since discounters Aldi and Lidl.