Waitrose’s refurbishment programme gives it the opportunity to realise its aim of enhancing its chilled and fresh offer. Liz Hamson reports

Waitrose has lifted the curtain on its state-of-the-art new look for stores. Out goes what sales and marketing director Mark Price admits was a “tired and outdated” layout. And in comes bigger floorspace wherever possible, new light green livery, state-of-the-art refrigeration units and enticing large photos of food behind the meat, fish and delicatessen counters.

The first store to benefit from the £134m facelift pledged by the John Lewis Partnership two months ago is Westbury Park in Bristol, while many of the changes have already been thrashed out at the new stores at Portishead and Canary Wharf, pointing to how the 143 outlets in the chain should look at the end of the three-year refurbishment programme.

Waitrose has made no secret of the fact that it wants to differentiate itself from its rivals primarily on the basis of its fresh food offer. But it did not have the space in its existing stores to stop the likes of Sainsbury and Safeway closing the gap.

Price says: “We were struggling to fit our fresh food offer into the normal stores, most of which are 17,000 sq ft to 20,000 sq ft. Portishead is 26,000 sq ft. We have looked hard at where we can get increased capacity on the shop floor.”

Under the Laser II refurbishment programme, Waitrose expects to increase the floorspace devoted to chilled food and vegetables by 30-40%. Some of that will be achieved through the expansion of about a fifth of its existing stores and some through the reconfiguration of existing floorspace at the expense of frozen and ambient as well as storeroom space.

Around a third of the refurbishment budget has been earmarked for new refrigeration facilities.

“By far the largest proportion of the spend has gone on refrigeration,” confirms Price. “We had to get better productivity and less wastage and bring it up to date. We wanted better presentation and increased capacity.”

That meant getting rid of the squat three to four-shelf units in favour of taller five-shelf units that can accommodate the chain’s new chilled food lines like Perfectly Balanced and Indian “takeaway” ranges.

The old meat, fish and delicatessen counters have gone, their place taken by shiny state-of-the-art units, complete with cheese display cabinet in the case of the deli counter. And behind the scenes, distribution systems have been enhanced to make 24-hour lead time standard instead of the old 72-hours.

Price sees no risk in aggressively pursuing the fresh and chilled food market when nearly every other multiple is going down the non-food route. “We want to be a great food retailer and fresh food is what nine out of 10 customers say they want,” he says.

“Our profits have grown well over the past five years and we expect good growth again this year.”

He cites its Weybridge store, which has seen a 10% to 15% uplift in sales since it was reconfigured to accommodate more chilled and fresh food. However, he insists, Waitrose is in no way abandoning non-food. “As our shops get bigger we’ll devote more space to non-food as well.”

Wandering around the Portishead store, the other big obvious change is in the corporate identity. Courtesy of Interbrand, JHP and Integrity Design Management, the sleek new corporate identity is evident everywhere, not only in the Waitrose logo hoisted on display placards above the aisles, but also on the blown-up photos that have replaced the old murals and tiles.

Greens and creams have replaced the old oranges and browns - and the fittings have been updated with new wood and chrome finishes.

And product display and gondolas are now bigger, allowing for more prominent promotions. With its new food graphics behind the speciality counters, the store looks not unlike an upmarket Sainsbury - but green.Waitrose is thought to have grown its market share last year largely at the expense of Sainsbury. But all Price will say is: “We were just looking for a more contemporary look.”

The visual transformation is certainly impressive. But the changes are not only skin deep, says Price. He points to the upgrades to its customer services and 10-year-old EpoS systems.

In the new look stores, the customer services desks are no longer scattered around the four corners of the store but are consolidated into one area by the entrance. Shoppers can also shop using one of the radio frequency Quick Check self-scanners, technology that will be eventually be rolled out to around two thirds of the stores.

At the checkout, customer cards are now swiped through new tills which are chip and PIN and euro compliant. Customers can even sit down and use one of the new instore PCs to access Waitrose’s home delivery or By Invitation entertaining services.

Inevitably, some of the ideas that have been piloted over the past four years have fallen by the wayside.

“We deliberately steered clear of shelf-edge labelling,the cost is prohibitive at the moment,” says Price. “And we’ve done a lot of work on customer catering and food services - for instance with our wine and sushi bars at the Canary Wharf store - which is not part of the Laser ll programme.”

By the end of the three-year programme, Waitrose will have spent far more than the earmarked £134m tidying up its image: “The £134m does not include our outlay on new computer systems,” explains Price. “And anyway we’ve been working on this for the last three years. If you put a figure on all the work we’ve done already, you could at least double that figure.”

The early signs are that it was money wisely spent. Footfall at the Westbury Park store was 78% up on expectations in the three days after its reopening - despite the absence of working new refrigerators.

So does Sainsbury have anything to worry about? Probably not - unless Waitrose suddenly gets a lot bigger.

Of course, the Safeway auction does throw up that prospect. Waitrose is known to be interested in picking up stores discarded by the eventual buyer but Price is not about to disclose how many stores it is eyeing.

“We’ve said we’d like to be in the game, we have a range of stores in mind and we know where we’d like to be,” is all he will say.

If it wants to be market leader in chilled and fresh, Waitrose has certainly taken a step in the right direction with its refurbishment programme.
Shelf-edge labelling too costly