The majority of Whole Foods Market stores in this country are, with the exception of the leviathan flagship on Kensington High Street, modestly sized and in affluent metropolitan locations.
In part, that has to do with the Fresh and Wild legacy - a UK chain of small, organic supermarkets that Whole Foods acquired in 2004 and which it subsequently rebadged.
All of the former Fresh and Wild stores are in London - Camden, Clapham Junction and Stoke Newington, adding to the sense that this is solely an urban retail phenomenon. Indeed, following the opening of a new store in Piccadilly last year, the casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the Austin, Texas-based retailer views the UK as being comprised of London and little else.
In fairness, there is a Scottish outpost in Giffnock, south Glasgow, but until late 2012 that was about it. Signs that the mould might be quietly being broken were evident late last year, however, when the upscale supermarket opened its first store on a retail park, on the outskirts of Cheltenham.
That might sound like a complete departure for an outfit predicated almost wholly on small stores serving local communities, but a quick glance across the Atlantic would dispel the notion. Whole Foods Market in the US is certainly a feature in many big towns and cities, but it also trades from multiple edge-of-town locations. The model as seen so far in this country is therefore peculiar to the UK.
And the new, 27,000 sq ft Cheltenham store does look different from its London-based sisters. Its position on a large retail park, with retailers such as Halfords, Homebase and Next for near neighbours, does, at first glance, look a mite unlikely as you approach via the main Tewkesbury Road.
Whole Foods has, however, done much to emphasise its difference from the retail park herd. It has done so by taking a unit that sits apart from the main ones on the development and by creating a structure that could be termed “vernacular architecture”, but which gives the organic game away through its heavy use of wood cladding. It has its own car park and standing outside it is easy to forget that you are on a retail park.
Standing out from surroundings
The gabled external elevation does much to make the shopper feel that they are looking at a retailer that has worked with the community and local suppliers since the year dot.
This is confirmed by the aged wood planking A-board stood outside the entrance that informs shoppers that there are 350 local products in the store, that it supports three local charities and that there is “one new health and beauty store redefining the word supermarket”.
Long before the visitor gets to see any of this however, the chances are good that they will have inspected the small, fenced compound that is immediately to the right of the store. At first glance, this is a kids’ play park that has a shiny 1950s Airstream trailer at its far end, used to dispense upscale burgers and suchlike, but then it’s hard not to notice what looks like a glass-sided shipping container. Dubbed ‘The Acorn Cook Centre’, this is a space devoted to cookery and well-being.
It hosts sessions that range from a juice-making masterclass and Pilates basics, for which participants pay, to a fish filleting workshop, which is free. The point about this feature is that it is about involving the local community, rather than just being a get-in, select and get-out purveyor of relatively aspirational food and drink.
And so to the store itself. Upon entering, the first thing that the shopper will encounter is a long, thin cafe, running adjacent to the long, glazed frontage. Seating in this area looks like reclaimed school classroom furniture of old and the tables are fashioned from thick planking and bare metal.
Graphics on blackboards run along the length of this area extolling the benefits of shopping at Whole Foods, but somehow it manages to have a warm and friendly feel. In total, the cafe has a stripped down look that sets the scene for what is to follow when a move is made beyond this and into the shop proper.
The finishing touches
To an extent, the initial vista is familiar Whole Foods Market territory with broad use of unfinished wood, graphics informing shoppers about product provenance and an all-round sense of visual merchandising abundance.
The notion of anchoring the offer as part of the community is evident from the off with the ‘Cotswold Kitchen’ featuring “real chefs making real food”.
The retailer has also made good use of mid-shop wooden display equipment to live up to the name above the door, fostering the idea of an indoors market. Small visual merchandising touches add to the in-store drama. The beer counter, for instance, has a back wall composed of carefully arranged brown and clear glass bottles. None of this is sensational stuff, yet the cumulative effect is to take the shopper away from the confines of an edge-of-town retail park and into something rather more like a large and traditional retail market.
There are things that are different, however, and among them is the beauty department. Like so much of the rest of the store, it has a folksy feel, with chintzy wallpaper, wannabe vintage wardrobes and a considerable amount of space. Beauty shops fall into two types - the clinical pharmacy variety, or those that have a homeopathic aura about them, and the Whole Foods beauty shop-in-shop veers towards the latter.
The fact that this area has been given so much space is a reflection of the store’s retail park location. Unlike in-town Whole Foods Markets, space will have been relatively cheap and it is therefore little surprise that aisles are wide and the merchandising is spacious and generous - this is a shop where room to move is an important part of the proposition.
The majority of shoppers in the store on the mid-week day of visiting had become part of the ‘grey pound’ demographic some years ago and they seemed generally happy with what they were encountering.
The real question is whether this is a one-off for Whole Foods in the UK, or whether what is on view in
Cheltenham is likely to form the template for future expansion beyond the capital?
There can be little doubt that if the will is there, there is space aplenty to realise out-of-town ambitions, but Whole Foods remains characteristically tight-lipped about its plans.
If the retailer can replicate what has been done here elsewhere though, this looks a pretty compelling format and certainly those who were in the store seemed relaxed and to be genuinely enjoying themselves.
Whole Foods Market, Cheltenham
Location Gallagher Retail Park, Cheltenham
Opened November 2012
Size 27,000 sq ft
Ambiance Faux folky US