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Monday, 29 August 2011

Waitrose – mining a rich seam of service?

Posted on Stirling Retail blog

I moved to Stirling around the time of the miner’s strike against the Thatcher government. On one of the main roundabouts into Stirling’s town centre stood the Stirling Miner’s Welfare Club. A couple of years ago it was pulled down and it has now been announced that it is to be replaced by … a Waitrose.

Waitrose? Stirling? These southerners seem to be getting everywhere. Much of course to the delight of the Stirling Council and sections of Stirling’s population. After all, this could be (it is in competition with Helensburgh) the first Waitrose in Scotland outside Glasgow’s and Edinburgh’s more leafier bits.

There is something quite symbolic about the change from a miner’s welfare to a Waitrose, but this is no time or place to get too nostalgic. Times change and Waitrose is fast assembling a Scottish face, as part of its rapid expansion and growth in the UK.

In a recent column in the Scotsman, Bill Jamieson pondered the expansion of Waitrose and decided it was built on our desire, especially in recession, to “treat” ourselves; Waitrose was flourishing not despite the recession, but because of it. There may be something in the general “treat” point, but for me Waitrose’s success is due to more than a guilty occasional pleasure in these dark times.

Waitrose is the food success story of the recent few years, having reinvented itself and moved away from its southern origins and bias. It has found new energy and direction, done deals with Boots and motorway service stations for concession space (and others overseas), looked for new types of locations, begun to open small high street stores and been generally innovative in its marketing (have a look on YouTube and other social media), its products (Heston’s Christmas Orange Pudding anyone?) and its store layout and design. Its Essential Waitrose “value” lines have been a raging success and helped their price comparisons with main stream food retailers.

But in one way it has not changed. As part of the John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose has customer service in its DNA. So it gives customers what they seek, but with added quality service. Its staff (sorry, partners) get a say and a share in the business performance; information on trading is routinely available.

Might all this also help account for its success? And might there be lessons here for other retailers? When you are in a Waitrose or a John Lewis, does this staff service ethos make the store a better place, and does this rub off on what and how much people buy, and what they think about the products, place and price? For many, the answer is yes; though rapid expansion runs its own risks in this regard.

So, will Waitrose work their magic in Stirling? Can’t wait to find out.

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Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling.

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