Bracknell may be the home to Waitrose HQ, but it had lacked a Waitrose store. Now it can boast the grocer’s greenest shop and a standout for the area. John Ryan reports.

Waitrose has its ‘campus’ (aka head office) in Berkshire, which might lead you to imagine green fields and rolling acres – a generally affluent neck of the woods. As it is, it is in Bracknell, the only gritty town in the whole area – a place where derelict 1970s blocks are due for demolition and that, as you emerge from the station, looks as if it is in need of a major overhaul.

All of which is somewhat reassuring, as you’d like to think that it provides a reality check for a retailer that has, in the past, had a reputation (whether deserved or not) for being a more than averagely expensive place to shop.

The obvious question, however, is why, given that there are close to 2,000 people working on campus, has there not been a large branch of Waitrose in Bracknell before now? Head of construction, environment and engineering Tony Jacobs, and director of store development Diana Hunter provide the obvious, if somewhat mundane answer – site availability.

Developer Stanhope has provided that opportunity at last and now, for a little over two weeks, Bracknell has been a Waitrose town for shoppers as well as head office workers. 

At 25,000 sq ft, the new store is large by Waitrose standards and utilises many of the elements first seen at the John Lewis/Waitrose store last year in Meanwood, Leeds. This is not really the point, however. What matters about this latest addition to the grocer’s portfolio is that it represents the ‘greenest’ thinking for the grocer.

Externally, all of the clues are clear to see. This is a long, low structure with a cedar-clad canopy running along two of its sides. Much of the rest of the exterior is also wood clad, although there is a small area of ‘living wall’ – featuring plants on it – on one of the elevations. Next to this, there is an ‘insect hotel’, an open-sided wooden crate with internal partitions and filled with the kind of stuff that creepy crawlies might find to their taste.

Behind the store’s wooden carapace lurks a steel frame. Jacobs comments that the case for timber-framed stores remains to be made: “We have yet to be convinced that wooden frames are the future.”

So far, therefore, this ticks most of the boxes that you’d expect of a green store that has a mild PR agenda as part of its remit. To be fair to Waitrose, however, it has been considerably less shouty on the matter of sustainability than many of its rivals, although it appears to be doing just as much. 

Inside is what counts

The same is true when you finally drag yourself away from admiring the store frontage and wander into the shop. Like many others of its kind, this one has an entrance atrium and Jacobs claims that the doors to this keep the temperature stable within, without involving leakage of either heat or cooled air in the store. This, apparently, is because the interior is “pressurised” – which does rather make it sound more like an A340 Airbus than a store, but the important bit is that it works.  

And beyond this, you are finally into the store that looks, well, just like an of-the-moment Waitrose branch. Like many second-generation eco-stores (the first generation tended to wear its eco-credentials on its sleeve, irrespective of the name above the door), this one may be good at both producing energy and conserving its use, but this really doesn’t matter to the shopper – this is a supermarket.

Jacobs wanders around pointing out the things that make the branch different, which the average shopper might like to know are in place, but which will have absolutely no effect upon the shopping journey. The food chilling cabinets, for instance, use propane gas as a refrigerant. This radically reduces the amount of harmful emissions when set against a similar unit using conventional refrigerants. And while looking at the chillers, Jacobs raises the closed door or easy-access open chillers that make shopping a more straightforward issue.

In this branch of Waitrose, the majority of cold food seems to be housed in open chillers, which Jacobs says is almost as effective at retaining energy and preventing cold air leakage as conventional chillers with closed doors.

In truth, however, the average shopper really doesn’t care as long as the shop is easy to get round, has the right stock and looks attractive. And on this level, Waitrose Bracknell delivers. Much of what is on view is a modification of what’s been done elsewhere over the past year. “This is the new standard,” says Hunter, and she takes a moment to point out the shelves bearing ambient food.

In the majority of supermarkets these tend to be straight affairs with stock of different height being arranged along their length.

Aligned thinking

Look along the shelves in this branch of Waitrose, or any of the newer stores for that matter, and what’s apparent is that the tops of all the products appear to be in a line. The reason for this is simple. Different parts of the shelves are at slightly differing heights in order that there can be uniformity about the product level as you glance along the aisle.

Hunter says that this is a particular bugbear as far as she is concerned and that it’s all about making the shopper feel that the environment is organised and pleasing to the eye.

There are of course all the usual fresh food shops arranged along the rear wall of the shop, but if you know Waitrose, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at.

Jacobs exits the sales floor, heads for the goods reception yard and moments later is talking about a wood-chip burner that provides energy for the store by a process of ‘gasification’. Again, this is nice to know, rather than need to know stuff, for the shopper, but it is all in place nevertheless.

Shoppers may be subliminally aware of the fact that levels of light are much higher in this shop than normal – there are more windows, and were they able to access the roof, they’d find a carpet of greenery laid out across one of its flat parts – a planning requirement. There are even light pipes that take sunlight from outside and beam it into the area close to the cash desks.

But all of this really doesn’t matter very much as far as shoppers are concerned – what is important is that this is a fine-looking space and one in which grocery acquisition is less of a chore and more an experience.

You still probably won’t want to go to Bracknell – but if you do, Waitrose is waiting for you and Bracknell is the better for it.

Waitrose, Bracknell

Location Bond Way, Bracknell

Size 25,000 sq ft

Obvious green features A green roof, a living wall, an ‘insect hotel’ and high levels of natural daylight internally

Hidden green features Highly efficient chillers and wood-chip gasification energy generation