Whole Foods Market's much-anticipated entry into the UK market, scheduled to open early next year at the former Barkers department store in Kensington, has been a catalyst in the advancement of the speciality and fine foods category.
While the multiples and existing fine food retailers alike deny that recent improvements in their own speciality ranges are linked to the advent of the fastest-growing major US retailer here in the UK, it has given them food for thought.
This month Sainsbury's rolled out its new-look Taste the Difference range along with its plans to grow the sub-brand to the value of £1bn by March 2009, while Tesco has revamped its store on London's Cromwell road, its closest store to the Barkers site.
It's not difficult to see why rivals could feel uneasy. The Barkers store is set to include three upmarket restaurants, a wine bar, a pub selling organic beer, and a US-style confectionery department. It will also major heavily on fair trade and organic products, including clothes.
Selfridges is improving its already well-equipped food halls and Fortnum & Mason began work in February on a £24m refurbishment. Set for final completion in time for the store's 300th Christmas displays in 2007, next month the store will reveal the work it has done to its lower ground floors, which will host, among other things, an extended fresh foods offering. The floor will also feature a new on-site bakery and wine bar.
Harrods started life as a grocery store and is determined to stay ahead of the game in speciality and fine foods. "In terms of footfall, the food halls are the most visited part of the store, and the chairman has a very keen interest in the products that we offer," says André Dang, press and product manager for Harrods' food halls.
However, he adds that the store is different from Whole Foods Market. "The trend for speciality foods is simplicity and traceability," he says. "Whole Foods Market takes a different approach. The nature of the products it sells tends to be speciality but they are organic first and foremost. We don't think of ourselves as a speciality food retailer - we just sell the best, freshest foods we can."
Harrods made the move into c-store territory earlier this year with its Harrods 102 store, situated across the road, designed to reflect a more modern outlook for the traditional brand.
"Harrods 102 has gone some way in challenging the concept of speciality food, and sales have also been an extra bonus," says Dang. "It is meant to be instant luxury. It is aimed at those people who do not have the time to linger over our counters in the food halls. They can come into 102, pick up items and be assured of the same quality."
The main food halls also try to stay ahead of the game, and most of the food on its bakery and deli counters is cooked on site daily by a team of 150 chefs. There are mod cons such as a hen-cam, which provides a live link up to the hens that laid eggs on sale.
Says Dang: "I don't think the multiples' speciality offerings will ever take the place of Harrods or Fortnum & Mason, simply because of the tremendous amount of effort it takes."
But he admits that the multiples are constantly breathing down his neck. "The retailers come in here all the time. They copy what we do, drop the price dramatically and then we cannot compete."n