Organic growth

As Whole Foods Market prepares to open its first UK superstore, Sarah Woods considers how the US food giant is likely to be received in London

There’s a new kid in town that everyone will soon be talking about, because it’s big, it’s brash, but it’s also organic. Whole Foods Market will soon be the latest organic phenomenon to hit the UK, and though it smacks of the American ‘bigger means better’ attitude, its London opening is still shrouded in mystery.

Already hugely successful in the US, the organic company’s first UK superstore will open this summer, covering three floors and 7400m2 of the Barker Buildings on Kensington High Street, claiming to be the largest food retailer in London.

Certainly, the format looks impressive. It is known that Whole Foods Market’s internal design team is working alongside Texas-based architects Bottino Grund Architects on the grandiose interiors of the store.

According to plans submitted by Whole Foods Market to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it will include bakeries, a wine bar, a fromagerie, clothes, make-up and beauty, natural remedies, a meat counter, a dairy, a brewery, a juice bar, an oyster bar, cafés, restaurants, and a vegan and vegetarian section. As if that weren’t enough, there will be ‘nuts and candy’ too.

In January 2004 it acquired Fresh & Wild’s six UK stores in Camden, Notting Hill, Clapham Junction, Soho, Stoke Newington and Clifton, which are to be rebranded Whole Foods as well.

As a result, Whole Foods Market now boasts 191 shops in North America and the UK, with plans for a further 40 here before rolling out to Europe. All this for what started as one small store in Austin, Texas in 1980.

The success of Whole Foods Market in the US undoubtedly lies with its expertise, treatment of its staff and the sustainable nature and quality of its produce.

But will the slightly outdated, American theme-style and relaxed shopping experience of the main store meet the expectations of busy London consumers and offer serious competition for the supermarkets and organic retailers here?

Simon Threadkell, creative director at Fitch, has worked with neighbouring supermarket Tesco in Kensington and has recently seen the Texas-based Whole Foods Market, dubbed ‘whole pay cheque’ by locals. He thinks that the concept has much going for it, but might just lack the sophistication and quality that London is used to.

‘It does a very good job at visual retail and hospitality and I think that will focus UK retailers on how they communicate environmental sustainability issues,’ says Threadkell. ‘It will be interesting to see how it manages to achieve the customer service level they do in the US – they really do know their stuff. From a design point of view, they have fantastic visual merchandising and it feels very inviting, but falls a bit behind. It is a little too theme-like, with a late 1990s feel. It is slow-paced and slightly dated.’

‘I was also surprised at the quality of the organic produce – it was lower than UK supermarkets. I think it looks great, but the quality needs to live up to UK expectations. However, competitors will have to react – that is what is positive about the UK, they are quick to react and outstrip. Whole Foods Market looks fantastic – the ethos and staff are great. People will have a knee-jerk reaction to it and I think it will be a surprise. With its staff knowledge, ethical standpoint and merchandise, it will raise the bar,’ adds Threadkell.

Despite the retailer’s attempts to keep the project secret, slices of information have emerged from the industry about the design, brand positioning and marketing of the store.

The interiors by the in-house design team and Bottino Grund will be backed up by a poster campaign on the windows of the store by direct marketing agency Liquid Communications. Liquid was appointed to promote the launch of the store last November following a pitch. Design consultancy Boxer’s strapline ‘It’s not something we do, it’s everything we do’ was plucked from the same pitch process to position the brand and appear on Liquid’s marketing work.

David Pocknell of Pocknell Studios has worked on all aspects of design for Canadian whole food offering Planet Organic and he believes Whole Foods Market will force competitors to sit up and take note.

‘It will be a scale we have not seen in this country. Whole Foods Market is highly professional and it will be the big boy on the block. Already they own Fresh & Wild and I think they have been biding their time with those shops. It will be interesting to see what happens to them. You have Tesco Metro, Sainsbury’s and then you will have this mecca in Kensington. Planet Organic was very careful in its positioning. It didn’t quite get the foothold it wanted, but it is now on the map. I think they will be very interested observers,’ says Pocknell.

‘The professionalism of Whole Foods Market is going to be the major thing – it will take it up a notch and cause more than a ripple. It could be improved from a graphics point of view – it is not astounding – but it will have real followers. It needs to be aware of the local market, local taste, local buying ability and be sophisticated for Europe, not the US,’ he adds.

• Whole Foods aims to open a further 40 UK stores and roll out to Europe
• Kensington, London store will include restaurants, cafés, make-up, clothes and a brewery
• The company has 191 locations in North America and the UK

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