As Waitrose gets ready to sell clothing, how do the big supermarkets deal with the matter of selling fashion? John Ryan travels to Milton Keynes to find out

Supermarket clothing brands

Tesco F&F

Sainsbury’s Tu

Asda George

Morrisons Yet to establish a meaningful clothing offer

Waitrose Trial at Canary Wharf store starts September

On paper, Milton Keynes has got it all. Walk through thecentre:mk and Midsummer Place and you’ll see a House of Fraser, a Boss branch – good heavens, there’s even an Apple Store so that you can check your email as you wander through one of the UK’s more linear shopping developments. And there’s more. Currently, the listed ‘the centre:mk’ (who thought of this as a name for a shopping centre? but there again, there’s always the Bullring, the Metro Centre and The Oracle, so perhaps it’s not so strange) has a giant beach at its heart, where mothers, a few fathers and their children, relax on deckchairs, build sandcastles and generally act like they’re on a day out in Scarborough. By which reckoning, you might be asking what reasons might there be not to visit this north Buckinghamshire haven?

The assumption might be made at this point that if it’s fashion that is sought then ‘central’ Milton Keynes (it is occasionally hard to work out where this is) would be the destination to head for when in the area. This would, however, be to discount the sterling efforts made by the supermarkets to provide shoppers with modish threads. It is also worth noting that owing to the somewhat decentralised nature of Milton Keynes, there is a lot of space – which means very, very large supermarkets…and all of them sell clothing.

The other consideration that must be borne in mind is that Milton Keynes is an elastic concept. So while there is really only a Sainsbury’s in the town itself, there are Tesco and Asda branches in Bletchley, which while it may have once been a separate entity, is now no more than a few more roundabouts from downtown MK.

As Waitrose readies itself to begin selling clothing, this is as good a venue as any to test the strength of supermarket clothing offers, as well as to ponder on how the upscale grocer will position itself in this arena. 

Sainsbury’s

The Sainsbury’s store is, by any yardstick, a hypermarket, with a two-storey underground car park and a massive non-food offer. The clothing element of the store greets the shopper almost immediately upon leaving the travelator that brings shoppers from the car park (everybody in Milton Keynes drives) to where the action is.

This is a large offer, stretching from the front of the store to the rear perimeter wall and at the moment, in common with its rivals, there are reductions at the front. Men, women and children are all catered for, with womenswear receiving the lion’s share, but with a reasonably substantial men’s offer.

All of it is displayed in an environment with a high ceiling and where enough space has been left between the high-sided pieces of equipment for two shopping trolleys to pass each other with comfort. This might be to give the impression that what’s on view is standard supermarket presentation, with slab-sided, bunker-style fixturing that takes shoppers down alleys where sightlines are limited to what you can see straight ahead of you.

Not so. There is variety both in terms of equipment height and shape, ranging from standard chromed four-ways to standalone mid-shop forward hanging pieces – both of which serve to break up what might otherwise be a monotonous storescape. Noteworthy too are the overhead beacons that make navigation very straightforward and which do not scream cheap as is the case in other MK supermarket rivals. Indeed, when set against both Tesco and Asda, the point-of-purchase that has been deployed is very low key. This is more than just a matter of pricing every rail and hoping that somebody notices.

Of the three supermarkets visited, this was the clear winner when it came to layout and in-store appeal – feeling almost like a true fashion shop, rather than a supermarket that had opted to sell clothing. It would be hard to imagine that Waitrose will not be giving Sainsbury’s the once, or twice over.

Asda

There has been an Asda Walmart supercenter in Bletchley (aka greater Milton Keynes) since the early years of the last decade, when it was, and remains, one of the largest branches in the retailer’s portfolio.

When it opened, the semi-discrete George store, that had its own entrance to the right of the main store, was interesting for the way in which separate merchandise areas had been created that permitted views through the space. Now, some years later, it appears this has been more or less abandoned and while the relatively wide curving walkway still takes shoppers around the space, the stock density looks far higher than when things started and the emphasis is almost wholly on price.

Stare down the long aisle that runs from front to back and the element that really hits home is the repeated use of yellow price cards banging home the value message, even without recourse to putting .99p on the end of everything.

The displays are double or triple tiered, for the most part, whether on the perimeter or in the mid-shop. In fairness, the accessories area does break up the view somewhat and for ease of shopping there is a bank of tills at the rear. This part of the store was busy and the back to school area was where much of the action seemed to be taking place. The Barbara Hulanicki range, complete with its own point of sale, did not seem to be attracting many takers, however.

There was also a lot of overhead point-of-sale material, much of which was swaying in the breeze created by the, presumably, heavy air conditioning. This shortcoming was apparent when the store first opened, so perhaps it’s time it was addressed. If Waitrose were looking for inspiration for its nascent clothing offer, this probably would be not be the first port of call.

Tesco

Also in Bletchley, there is a Tesco Extra, another massive store. The clothing offer here is on the first floor, accessed by a travelator, with a token offer of back to school on a long gondola just inside the entrance on ground. Housekeeping and store design for the clothing was somewhere between average and poor, with stock variously crammed onto rails or barely retained by the hangers provided for its display.

Matters were not helped by the fact that forcing an offer of this nature onto a mezzanine means a low ceiling and equipment that reaches up to almost touch it. The net effect was a very busy looking area where departmental segmentation was not obvious and which had little appeal for shoppers. It is perhaps worth noting that this was the least patronised of the three supermarkets that were visited.

A highlight was the poster showing TV Dragon Duncan Bannatyne, who is the face of a £70 business suit, although it is hard to imagine him making an appearance on the box wearing one of these. Nothing to capture the imagination for the store design department at Waitrose here.

Waitrose

It would be hard to imagine that when Waitrose opens the doors of its remodelled Canary Wharf store in September and lets a waiting world see its clothing offer, that it will be anything like what others are doing.

It seems probable that Waitrose will follow the lead set by John Lewis with a high degree of stock from its sister retailer, as well as branded merchandise. If it does this, then expect point of sale that follows a master in-store design template where the vagaries of brand design are largely overlooked.

Only one thing can be said with any degree of certainty, the Waitrose offer will not be a value-led environment.