After more than three years of waiting, Whole Foods Market is almost with us.
The world's leading retailer of natural and organic foods, according to the company, is due to open the doors of its Kensington store on 6 June. Cue bunting, crowds of curious Kensington socialites and thousands of column inches in the press.
The 80,000 sq ft store - on the site of the former Barkers department store - will make Whole Foods Market the largest food retailer in central London, it claims. But what of its long-term prospects? Can the retailer emulate its success across the pond or has it left it too late?
Since news of the store's opening broke, the multiples have upped their game in organic and natural food lines. Only this week, Asda and M&S announced plans to cut artificial additives from their own-label ranges. There has also been a surge in the number of upmarket food stores opening across London, including Daylesford Organic's marble-clad store in Pimlico and Farmers' City Market's first store in Hampton Hill. Organic food chain Natural Kitchen will also pip Whole Foods to the post when it opens its flagship store in Marylebone next week.
It hasn't helped that Whole Foods Market had to delay its opening by at least four months. It was originally scheduled to launch in February 2007, and while it has maintained a veil of secrecy over the reasons, The Grocer has learned that many UK organic suppliers are already struggling to meet demand as the multiples have already secured much of their supply, meaning they have little to offer the new store.
Organic Monitor director Amarjit Sahota says: "Much of its fresh produce will be sourced in Europe. Organic meat and dairy products were their main problem and initially it contacted Waitrose to ask if it could approach its suppliers. Obviously Waitrose said 'no'."
The weather hasn't helped either. Whole Foods Market is opening its doors in a year of short supply for British organic produce. Last summer's drought damaged many crops as they came up for harvest and baked others into the ground that were due to be harvested around Christmas. Supplies of organic onions, for example, ran out months ago, forcing suppliers to rely on South American imports. And where supplies are available, they are often more expensive than usual.
At the same time, the hot, dry weather led to a massive reduction in Europe's organic cereal harvest. Organic livestock farmers have found it very difficult to source adequate feed, and even harder to cover those higher costs from market returns, making them reluctant to expand.
This summer is also shaping up to be hotter than average and a very dry March and April have stopped some vegetables, such as peas, even being sown. Growers and suppliers are braced for at least 12 more months of organic shortages.
That many of the UK's commonly known suppliers of organic produce - including Mack Multiples, Produce World and the Organic Milk Suppliers' Co-operative - are not currently trading with Whole Foods may not be as significant as it suggests.
In some instances, the US retailer has chosen to work with smaller-scale British producers. The acquisition of the UK-based Fresh & Wild chain (which has since been subsumed) gave Whole Foods a decent foothold in the organic food supply chain. Many of Fresh and Wild's suppliers have simply been rolled over to Whole Foods. British cereal producer Rude Health, for example, has secured listings at the store, and many other UK lines are expected to accompany its products on the shelves.
Turkey and chicken will also be sourced in the UK, being supplied by Norfolk Traditional Poultry. Its meat was already on sale in Fresh & Wild with a Whole Foods label. Even here, however, there's a degree of secrecy surrounding Whole Foods Market, with suppliers being kept in the dark about the future.
"They've kept it very close to their chests, even with us," says Norfolk Traditional Poultry MD Mark Gorton. "Stock quantities are completely up in the air - we're just trying to gauge volumes. They've told us their volumes in their US stores, but will Londoners shop like, say, New Yorkers? We just don't know. We've put extra birds down, but we don't want to go overboard and end up with a lot of expensive birds we can't sell."
But the reality for Whole Foods is that - despite marketing the 'Whole Story' as a 'locally grown' phenomenon, it is sourcing an awful lot of goods from abroad, tapping into established supply chains for ambient goods, while looking to Europe for much of its meat and dairy.
"It is looking at foreign markets, especially for its own-label products such as dried fruit, nuts and packaged foods, which it can easily buy in from the US," says Sahota.
In the meantime, organic pork will come from Denmark's Tulip and beef from Germany and France. Much of its fruit will be imported, too.
The use of imports still ticks the organic box, of course, but it won't curry favour with the UK consumer's growing demand for locally grown food, according to Soil Association director Patrick Holden. "The retailer is known in the US for its sumptuous displays of fresh produce, shipped and flown in from around the world, but the UK has more of an appetite for local food.
"More and more consumers want food with provenance, high welfare and a good social story. Customer demands are changing and those retailers that don't listen to that won't do well."
At least in this respect Whole Foods Market won't be on its own, according to Simon Wright, founder of the Organic and Fairtrade Consultancy. All the multiples are being forced to source organic produce abroad, he says. Beef comes from Argentina and pork from Denmark. Even milk is sourced from the Netherlands.
But it's not just the shortage of local produce at Whole Foods that may pose a problem for consumers, says Holden. "In the US, a very large percentage of its produce is non-organic, but that may not be what British consumers expect."
Due to a lack of organic supply in the US, Whole Foods Market uses other farming accreditation schemes to add value. It is likely to follow this route in the UK too, says Holden. "When it opens here it will have a lot of LEAF [Linking Environment and Farming] accredited products and I'm not sure consumers understand that."
Where Whole Foods Market will unquestionably score highly is in its unique sense of theatre. The retailer is world-renowned for its artisan approach to food, with enticing window displays and fresh produce piled flamboyantly high.
And, as well as selling food, the Kensington store will boast three upmarket restaurants, a pub selling organic beer, a US-style confectionery department, an Eco store selling organic clothes and a yoga studio.
There is little doubt the first few weeks of the store's opening will be busy. And the hype surrounding its opening will be further exacerbated by its proximity to the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, which are just across the road.
But as we've seen, the organic market has grown a lot more competitive even since the company announced its intentions to enter the UK. And as well as the multiples and new fine food outlets, there's Harrods food hall, Selfridges and even Waitrose. All just a taxi ride away.nCountdown to opening
19 January 2004
Whole Foods Market announces first UK store
19 August 2005
80,000 sq ft flagship store selected in High St Ken, to open in early 2007
3 February 2007
Opening delayed until June
17 February 2007
New UK slogan launched: 'It's Not Something We Do, It's Everything We Do'
26 April 2007
Fire guts Oxford Street head office but no further delays to schedule
12 May 2007
The Grocer reveals start-up costs for UK store are three times US average
6 June 2007
D-day for launch of Whole Foods Marketa taste of things to come...
f the length of the queues in the Whole Foods Market on Columbus Circle are anything to go by, the company may have little to worry about when it finally opens its doors in the UK next month. Stefan Chomka visited the store to find out what we can expect. The approach to retailing was, he says, surprisingly unAmerican
The queue (or line, as they like to say) ran the length of the store as shoppers waited to pay for their organic fruit and veg, neatly packaged ready meals, artisan breads and freshly ground coffee. (Although this has much to do with the retailer's peculiar queuing system of lumping everyone into one massive line.) Mums with pushchairs brushed shoulders with kids holding skateboards and businessmen out for a quick sandwich. Most people wielded baskets but quite a few were doing larger weekly shops.
New York is not without its fancy food stores - Dean & Deluca has two Manhattan stores and gourmet food chain Garden of Eden has five outlets in the city - but Whole Foods Market seems to hold a particular magnetism over the city.
At its Union Square store, for example, there was a well-established farmers' market in full swing just outside, yet more people were happy to queue patiently inside than buy similar products, at similar prices, out in the sunshine.
Maybe it's convenience. In a country where Wal-Mart is king, and where shoppers can park their Humvees and load up on anything from linseed oil to lawnmowers, Whole Foods Market's more 'rustic' approach is considered a breath of fresh air. A Whole Foods Market store, for example, has little, if any, strip lighting. But you can still pay for all the goods in one go, with a credit card.
Or maybe it's the celebrity factor. Countless celebrities shop at Whole Foods. It's evidently contagious.
Much of the food comes packaged in clear plastic boxes so that you can see what you are buying. Other items, such as nuts and coffee, are served loose so you can choose how much you want. Pile it high, sell it cheap it isn't.
In essence, it is a very un-American enterprise, which will surely work in its favour when it crosses the pond. It should slip effortlessly into the UK fine food market, with a similar feel to Harrods' 102 c-store concept, the look of Harvey Nichols food hall and a ready meals section to rival any inner city Marks & Spencer. The fact its opening store sits on the old Barkers site, a store still held in affection by many Londoners, will also help.
Whole Foods Market also has a strong pedigree. It has taken the top spot in our World's Greatest Food
Retailers survey two years in succession. Of course, its success in the UK is not a foregone conclusion. We Brits are a discerning lot and have very high standards. But the buzz that already surrounds the new store is palpable. If this can be translated into regular footfall, and doesn't just rely on Americans, it could be a huge success.