Waitrose is risking its position as the friendly face of supermarket retailing with its new smaller store format, experts have warned.

The company is offering fresh meat and fish alongside bakery and deli counters in its new 10,000 sq ft to 15,000 sq ft Market Town format stores, putting it in direct competition with high street independents.

One per cent of the store's range will be sourced within 30 miles, and local producers will be promoted in store.

Waitrose intends to price goods at the same level as its supermarkets, despite the higher costs of running a smaller store.

The first of three trial stores will open in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, on Friday followed by stores in Buckingham and Brackley, Northamptonshire.

Waitrose is thought to be considering opening up to 100 Market Town stores if a three to six-month trial is successful, although the company said it had no firm plans on numbers.

Critics said the retailer risked tarnishing its reputation by emulating the multi-format strategy of its bigger rivals.

"Waitrose has a good name and is highly regarded but it, like the other supermarkets, does seem hell bent on doing everything the butcher, baker and florist does in the local high street," said Stephen Alambritis, head of public affairs for the Federation of Small Businesses.

Waitrose dismissed the suggestion that it was a threat to the viability of the high street.

"There are many examples of Waitrose shops with successful small-scale food shops on their doorsteps," said a spokeswoman.

Diana Hunter, Waitrose's head of format development, said that research had shown shoppers in market towns were interested in supporting local ­farmers and wanted to shop for fresh fruit and vegetables three or four times a week.

She added that Waitrose would look at any appropriate sites, including Somerfield stores, should any of them become available.

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