Waitrose Reinvents the Convenience Store

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Breaking into a New Category

Waitrose, the U.K.’s fastest-growing supermarket chain, began its innovation partnership with ?What If! in 2005. Together we developed a food hall in the John Lewis Department Store, on Oxford Street in London, which became a finalist for the 2008 World Retail Awards’ “Most Innovative Format of the Year” and a double Retail Interior Awards winner. The relationship continued with the development of multiple formats to differentiate Waitrose across a variety of markets, such as urban centers and small towns.

By 2008, though, Waitrose had yet to enter the lucrative convenience market, the fastest-growing sector of the U.K. grocery industry. Waitrose needed to gain a foothold quickly or risk being excluded.

Waitrose was determined to find a growth plan that would stay true to its upmarket food credentials, distinguish it from the competition, and provide a different consumer experience than in larger stores.

The final store format developed by the Waitrose–?What If! team included many features that contradicted convenience store or supermarket conventions.

Flipping the Script

Waitrose was determined to find a growth plan that would stay true to its upmarket food credentials, distinguish it from the competition, and provide a different consumer experience than in larger stores—and do it fast. ?What If! used deep consumer insight to develop five bold convenience-retail propositions for Waitrose, each of which was brought to life with 3D models, drawings, and animation and subjected to extensive consumer feedback.

The final store format developed by the Waitrose–?What If! team included many features that contradicted convenience store or supermarket conventions. For example, we learned that customers pick up fruit as a snack for instant consumption, while they select vegetables as part of a full meal, usually after choosing a protein (meat or fish). So Waitrose flipped the script of standard convenience store layout, placing fruit in a highly visible snacking section as part of “food to go” and vegetables deeper into the store, where customers typically shop for ingredients for their evening meals.

Standing Out on the High Street

Over the years, ?What If! has helped Waitrose expand into untapped areas and demographics across the U.K., maximize sales in existing locations, and drive return on capital. As a result, revenue has almost doubled, from £2.8 billion in 2004 to £4.7 billion in 2011, while operating profit margin has increased as well.

At the close of our latest collaboration, Waitrose came away with:

  • A clear strategy unique to the convenience market and true to the Waitrose brand, based on “simple, fresh, healthy meals.”

  • A first-of-its-kind store format and service features such as a “kitchen table” featuring fresh, meal-specific, healthy (and indulgent) selections that change throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner.

  • A concept so well visualized that Anthony Wysome, head of convenience format at Waitrose, said upon the opening of the first store, “It’s like walking around your drawings.”

  • The plans and momentum to make the venture a reality, including securing needed investment from corporate headquarters.

The first stores performed magnificently, and rollout was accelerated: Waitrose now has nearly 20 convenience stores in its portfolio. And in 2011, the company took innovation in convenience further with “Good to Go,” a line of sandwiches, smoothies, and “innovative bread-free” products. As Diana Hunter, Waitrose’s director of store development, said, “?What If! are such great collaborators. You are always deeply immersed in both the insights and ideas we generate together, and it stretches our thinking. Together we have developed real stand-out on the high street.”

The first stores performed magnificently, and rollout was accelerated: Waitrose now has nearly 20 convenience stores in its portfolio.

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