When the refurbished store on Marylebone High Street reopened, it was billed in some quarters as a “posh person’s Waitrose”. At the time and now, this seemed something of a misnomer, because Waitrose has always been a destination for the well-heeled and those who aspire to be so.
Yet it was markedly different from much of what the retailer had been doing elsewhere. For a start, there were the wooden rafts that hovered above the fresh food displays, a distinctly middle-European approach. There were the deft visual merchandising touches that had been applied, such as the rustic-looking wicker baskets in the windows that seemed to usher shoppers back to an earlier age.
Then there was the non-linear take on layout that characterized all the store’s other areas. This included the many shop-within-shops – the meat counter, the bakery and the wine shop that was located in the middle, rather than at the end of the shopping journey.
The unsuprising bit in all this is that it appears to have worked and that the targets that were set have been met and in some areas exceeded. The reason is simple – Waitrose’s two trial stores stand as an example of doing something just mildly different from the supermarket norm.
The great food retailing god of efficiency, the ability to restock shelves quickly and to brings goods in one end and push shoppers out at pace at the other, has been sacrificed on the altar of retail experience. Because an experience is what you get when you wander around the Marylebone High Street store – on a par with the nearby Natural Kitchen only much, much more cost-effective in terms of the prices that you are likely to encounter.
And, as an experience, it is one that you are going to be happy to pay for, for no better reason that than it harks back to the old-fashioned values that used to be what food retailing was about.
With its emphasis on service rather than shopper servicing, these stores are reminiscent of a happier age, one in which quality of experience was put ahead of mere shopper throughput.
All of which is fine if you happen to be Waitrose. Whether anything of the kind would work in the bigger, badder world of Tescoland, for instance, must be a different question entirely.