Waitrose has finally moved into the convenience market with its first c-store in Nottingham. John Ryan takes a tour to find out how the grocer plans to differentiate itself in the sector.

Welcome to 2009 and to kick off the new year, a store that opened at the tail end of 2008. This is Waitrose’s convenience format that launched in Nottingham in December, which is intended to be central to the grocer’s strategy to double revenues to£8 billion by 2017.

The store’s selling area is 5,800 sq ft (540 sq m), on which reckoning it is at the upper end of what people mean when they refer to a convenience retailer. In fact, the first impression when standing at the threshold of this city centre store is that you are looking at a modern version of a 1970s supermarket, in terms of size.

For this reason, the space has been split into two areas, according to Waitrose director of store development Diana Hunter. The front part of the store is designated for “food now”, while the rear is for more planned shopping trips that will provide the ingredients for meals to be made over the next 24 to 48 hours. Externally, the fascia is a dark metal version of a typical Waitrose. It has, however, given up none of the brand’s reputation for honesty and efficiency.

This is almost two shops in one. The first is what most observers would tend to think of as a typical convenience store, while the second is somewhere between the weekly shop and the grab and go mentality of the spur of the moment customer.

And all of this has been very carefully thought through. “With this being our first step into the convenience market, we spent quite a lot of time looking at what other retailers do,” says Hunter. She notes that Tesco has been in the convenience sector for 15 years and therefore Waitrose’s ability to make inroads into the market depends on it being able to offer something different.

With this in mind, the front part of the Nottingham convenience store changes throughout the day - a trick that its competitors have yet to pull off as effectively. This means the early morning offer, when croissants, porridge and coffee are available, is different from the lunchtime menu, which in turn changes mid-afternoon to focus on the needs of shoppers who want to create an evening meal. Particular attention has been paid to lunchtime, with the menu featuring a meal of the day that is rotated on a 14-day cycle.

Managing this programme in such a relatively modest space demands flexibility and Waitrose, working with Swiss design-cum-shopfitting company Schweitzer, has created a series of counters that help make this a reality. As in other stores, these are spaces manned by partners but, unusually, the member of staff stands in front of, rather than behind, the counter. Hunter says this makes transactions more personal, encouraging shoppers to talk to staff. It also fits comfortably with what she says is the underlying aim of this store - to act as a contemporary greengrocer.

As such, this store is bang on brand and puts Waitrose in a rather different place from its competitors convenience-wise. This is a retailer that makes much of its fresh food offer and the counters are about helping maintain this in a store with a smaller footprint. It also “puts the customer in control”, says Hunter. She notes that one of the difficulties of many convenience formats is that the food has a tendency to be pre-packaged, meaning shoppers end up buying either too much or too little of what they are seeking - all of which rather defeats the object of a store that carries the convenience tag. Counters, she says, mean customers get what they need, because they can ask for specific amounts.

The rest of the grab and go part of the shop features a bakery, partly located on the windowline to act as a saliva-inducing attention grabber, a few wood-clad, mid-floor units with fresh food and the checkouts. The latter feature the kind of queuing system favoured by Marks & Spencer in its Simply Food stores, with tensabarriers creating lines of customers that pass each other until they get to the tills, airport security style. Once at the tills, there is not much that might be considered flash. The colour scheme is light olive and a retro-looking clock is set into the wall.

Low-key might in fact describe the approach adopted in this store. There are no bright colours, the in-store signage is simple and Waitrose has eschewed the white box that characterises much of its portfolio.

Stuart Johnstone, store manager on secondment for the opening and first few months of trading, points out that the layout was designed to make seeing through the space straightforward. There are low units across the front of the shop and chiller cabinets at the rear, separated from the rest of the shop by a square arch.

The store’s back has many of the features that will be familiar to Waitrose shoppers, including a chilled cheese unit along the perimeter, housed within cream-coloured wooden casing. And along the back wall, beyond the chiller units and dried goods shelves, there is a meat and fish counter that Johnstone says has proved to be one of the store’s most successful areas so far. It is also a measure of the efficacy of the layout that shoppers are clearly reaching the shop’s deepest recesses.

Prices in this store are no different from those in a regular full-line branch - something that also differentiates it from its competitors. The next store of this kind will open at Clifton in Bristol early this year with two more set to follow, although locations have yet to be announced.

Hunter says that, all things being equal, it will be the end of 2009 before a decision is taken about rolling out the format. However, on the evidence of excited Nottingham shoppers, things may progress a little more swiftly than that. This may not be a convenience store in the terms we normally think of the format, but it is certainly convenient.