What do London's c-store retailers make of the latest US export? Gaelle Walker finds out

With three luxurious floors of mouthwatering natural and organic produce from around the globe, Whole Foods Market's first UK store in London's Kensington has been dubbed the "Disney World of food". Yet there's nothing Mickey Mouse about this operation and the opening has sent the industry into one hell of a spin.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has made no secret of his plans to change the face of UK grocery shopping, and he won't be taking any prisoners. The sandle-wearing advocate of natural foods sent out a stark warning to local retailers on the eve of the London store's launch: Raise your game, or else.
However, while industry observers agree that the likes of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons are facing a competitive nightmare, the general consensus is that the capital's army of independent retailers and convenience store owners are well placed to stand up to the US giant. They may even thrive.
With its stunning art deco design, high-spec fixtures and fittings, superabundance of choice and breathtaking merchandising, Whole Foods' new 80,000sq ft store is a shrine to food and drink. Industry analysts believe that the store will prompt a rise in customer footfall along the famous London high street, an event that can only be a good thing for surrounding businesses.
Local retailers would undoubtedly reap the benefits of increased customer numbers - especially if they made improvements to their food to go and chilled drink offers, says Dominic Perks, managing director of shopfitters Uno Retail Solutions. "This would enable them to profit from all those parched Whole Foods shoppers desperate for refreshment after trekking around its mammoth interior," he says.
So what do local retailers think of their newest neighbour? Mohamed Elbanna, who owns a small grocery store just a few hundred yards away from Whole Foods, agrees with Perks about its ability to pull in the punters, but he has no worries about losing any of his regular customers to the big, shiny newcomer, and neither should any other retailer with a good offer and great service, he says.
"Whole Foods is an impressive store, there's no doubting that, but customer satisfaction is about so much more than just great displays," he says. "Customer service is a key part of the shopping experience, and while I'm sure that Whole Foods does offer great service, it won't be on the same personal level that I can offer my customers. I know all my regular customers by name - I know what they want and can deliver it. I can even offer them recipe suggestions. Whole Foods does that, too, but it's printed on a pamphlet - my information is spoken with a smile. You can't beat that."
In fact, Mohamed is sceptical about Whole Foods' chances of success in London. "Whole Foods has jumped in all guns blazing without properly assessing its surroundings," he says.
The store has no car park of its own, and the surrounding streets are a maze of double yellows and other parking restrictions.
"Whole Foods is trying to encourage people to do a full weekly shop - but how are its customers supposed to get their groceries home, or even back to their cars? It's very impractical," he says.
No marks for convenience there, then. But there are whispers that Whole Foods is readying itself to launch an online delivery service to combat its parking problem - but no plans are set in stone just yet.
Convenience stores do have another weapon in their armoury - size. Being smaller allows convenience stores to be much more flexible, Perks believes. "They can be much more reactive to changes in the market, which is incredibly important in an industry as volatile as this one," he says.
"Not being dictated to by a head office and metres of red tape means that they can make impulsive decisions to alter their range and layout - a luxury which the big boys like Whole Foods don't have."
Being smaller also makes for a much closer team, adds Budgens Express retailer Meeta Patel, who trades from nearby Borough. "If you have a good strong team that shares common goals and aspirations you can beat the competition, regardless of how big they are," she says.
"Customers can see when you have a happy team - it creates a positive vibe in the store, which makes for a better shopping experience."
Price is another key area in which nearby smaller retailers believe they have the upper hand. While the Whole Foods store is most definitely a feast for the eyes, many of its prices could prove too high for some to stomach. Customers can expect to pay just under £8 for a takeaway salad and £5 for a sandwich.
"People do look at price, regardless of how rich they are. At the end of the day everyone likes a good deal," says Andy Patel, independent owner of Budgens' new Virginia Quay store.

In the know

But the biggest weapon of all, adds Mohamed, is a local retailer's un-rivalled understanding of his market. "No one knows the needs of the local community better than us because we live and work in it every day of the year," he says.
"I set up 21 years ago when I was practically the only grocery retailer on the high street. There is now a Tesco, Sainsbury's, Somerfield and two Waitrose stores within a mile, but I'm still here and don't intend to go anywhere for a long time."

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