Last week provided a final hurrah for retailers – for the time being at least – as those freed from the responsibilities of turning up for work headed to the shops instead.
A not-very-quiet walk around London’s West End revealed vast crowds clutching plastic bags brimming with cut-price merchandise – most of them from John Lewis, if the figures are to be believed.
There was, however, an exception in Kensington. In the summer of 2007, food retailers waited with trepidation for American foodie palace Whole Foods Market to open its doors in the UK for the first time. The opening came and went and proved something of a two- or three-week wonder. By August, it was not uncommon to experience a tumbleweed moment in the 80,000 sq ft emporium and, no matter how artfully the visual merchandising was executed, it didn’t appear to be a crowd-pleaser.
Given this, you might imagine that the store’s management would use the January clearance season as a chance to get a few more shoppers through the doors with some mouth-watering offers. But, walking through the impressive entrance, the only thing that appeared to have changed over the past few months was a limited extension of the home delivery service, which can be arranged at the front desk.
Actually, you have to be in the mood to splash out if you want a free delivery; a£100 spend secures the right to have a Whole Foods van arriving at your door if you live sufficiently close to the store.
Inside, there were no show-stopping offers and strolling around was easy because there were few shoppers. The staff were busy making everything look just so – again, something rarely seen at this time of year. And the marketing ploy that was in use consisted of a series of blackboards comparing the wide range of offer in fish, meat and suchlike, with “your local supermarket”. The inference to be drawn was that if it’s choice you are seeking, then this is the store for you.
In fairness, there was a crowd of suited and booted types wandering around the ground floor and admiring the cheese-maturing room – “very important for the European community”, according to a North American-sounding guide. The group turned out to be from the US and were being shown what Whole Foods has been up to in the UK.
All of which seems to say that, on the evidence so far, British consumers are relatively immune to the power of lip-smacking abundance and, while Whole Foods may be considering expansion in Europe, something on the same scale as Kensington is unlikely to be repeated.