Ask grocery retailers who they think is doing the most exciting stuff when it comes to selling food and those in the know will point immediately to Whole Foods Market, the US speciality chain.
British shoppers will soon be able to find out what all the fuss is about, because the chain is preparing to open six big stores in and around London. And it has its eyes on other British cities - as well as Europe.
The invasion has been a long time in coming. When Whole Foods Market, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic food, bought Fresh & Wild last February we were told it planned to open as many as 75 stores in the UK. Since then, things have been pretty quiet as it has got to grips with the vagaries of retailing in this country. The company is now ready to talk up its plans for expansion and we profile its ambitious strategy on page 28.
Our feature begs an interesting question: is there room for such a player in our polarising grocery market? The answer, clearly, is an overwhelming ‘Yes’.
As the ends of our market polarise, there is no doubt that the gap in the middle is getting much bigger - leaving plenty of room in which niche operators like Whole Foods Market can manouevre.
It will be able to tap into a growing demand from consumers - particularly the wealthier, chattering classes in urban areas - for foods that are local, regional and ‘real’. They are fatigued with the current mass market, homogeneous supermarket offers. They want something different - a trend we feel will be one of the key themes of 2005 (see page 31 for more on that). And I have no doubt these consumers will like Whole Foods Market’s ethical trading culture.
These are certainly trends that Waitrose and Booths have already been able to capitalise on in recent years.
But, as one US commentator put it recently, the Whole Foods Market offer goes even further - it is, he says, like Waitrose on steroids. It’s a great soundbite. But I guess the reason I am really excited about the idea of Whole Foods Market coming to the UK is that it shows there is room for new food retailing ideas in our market. It will not be easy for the US chain - after all, it’s taken a year to get this far. But I wish them well, because in a market consolidating and polarising as much as ours, we need all the diversity we can get.
welcome the new invasion