Waitrose Reading - Tina Cleary Photography

Source: Tina Cleary Photography

Waitrose’s winning store is the largest of its three in the Reading area

Our mystery shoppers descended on Reading for The Grocer’s first-ever shop focused entirely on a single town or city. And the winner was the out-of-town Waitrose store on Oxford Road on the north west side of town.

With a population of 342,604, Reading is among the largest urban areas in the UK without city status. And with 87 grocery retail stores, from 600 sq ft convenience stores to the 70,000 sq ft Sainsbury’s, it’s a competitive market, with the average store competing against 60 rivals.

That’s partly down to demographics: the town is comparatively rich and young. CACI’s Acorn consumer classification shows Reading has a significant proportion of in Acorn Group’s ‘Executive Wealth’ bracket, which account for almost 24% of the population, higher than the 13% average in similar-sized towns. Just 2% of the population are pensioners, contrasting with a high proportion of families, with 70% of households having dependent children.

At 25,000 sq ft, the winning store is the largest of three Waitroses in the area and scored 73 points overall in our Friday night shop. In a store offering click & collect, food counters and a café, customer service stood out, with smartly presented, friendly shop floor staff easy to find. The checkout assistant was equally friendly, and the queue was short.

Availability suffered across the board this week, and Waitrose was no exception. Three items were out of stock and one not stocked.

Second place went to the Tesco on Napier Road with 71 points. One of 19 Tescos in Reading, including two large supermarkets, the Extra again offered excellent service. Staff were easy to find and helpful, and the checkout experience was excellent. As our shopper approached the checkouts, a member of staff opened a new till.

The store layout was good but there were few services available, with no food-to-go, counters or click & collect, which the shopper found surprising in a store of its size.

The 70,000 sq ft Sainsbury’s on Bath Road, one of five in the Reading area, is notable for having the highest market share of any store in the town, at 23%. The store is well located close to a motorway junction and good A road network, as well as a large Ikea store close by.

It scored 60 points, not helped by poor availability, with six items out of stock. Promotions were also “fairly average” according to our mystery shopper – a rather damning verdict on its new Nectar Prices initiative – and some of the fresh fruit & veg was “disappointing”, though the store was clean and tidy, with no obstructions and good lighting, and staff were “helpful and pleasant”, with the checkout assistant “careful and methodical”.

Fourth-placed Morrisons off Basingstoke Road scored 55 points. It is the only Morrisons in Reading, but is on the larger side at 51,884 sq ft. It had the best availability this week with two items out of stock and two not stocked. There were very few staff on the shop floor and our shopper had to go out of her way to find someone.

Staff were also not helpful in locating items our shopper could not find: “Nobody checked on the store system or in the stockroom”, our shopper noted.

The worst store surveyed in Reading this week was Asda Chalfont Way, with a shocking 27 points. It’s one of two Asdas in town.

There were gaps across the whole store, and staff were not helpful in determining if items were out of stock or not stocked.

Store standards were also disappointing, with a number of obstructions in the aisles, including unmanned trolleys full of rubbish.

The food to go area was also untidy and “not intuitive”.

And our shopper had to wait four to five minutes to queue, with goods rushed through the checkout with “little care”, making our shopper feel pressured to pack fast, while the checkout assistant checked their phone.