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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wysome

Predators and Peacocks

For much of the last 15 years I’ve been either directing the evolution of the Waitrose store estate or developing new global propositions and designs for Costa Coffee. These days I’m usually found consulting on future retail propositions of one form or another. I’m also delighted to now be working with Insight who I’ve known since Dan came to see some of the early Little Waitrose stores that we opened almost 15 years ago.


I live in a town called Shrewsbury about which there are only two things you need to know for this article. The first is that it is the birthplace of Charles Darwin and the second is that 2 centuries on, Shrewsbury remains a hotbed of evolutionary curiosity in the form of Insight Research, whose offices are 5 minutes up the road from my house. 


Despite (or perhaps because) of our rural base, Dan, Nick and I share a fascination with London and its retail scene. At different times in the last 15 years I’ve led work to develop food halls, supermarkets, convenience stores, cafes and coffee shops for the London market and I do much of my work there today.


This is the first of a handful of articles where I will try to use the existing London food retail scene as a backdrop for questions and occasionally predictions (guesses) about the future. Hopefully there will be some titbits in there worth holding on to and ideally a visit or two worth planning (Insight Research are more than happy to assist in this regard).


In upcoming articles I will look in more detail at certain sectors but in tribute to our famous hometown naturalist, I thought I’d start with a general Darwinian look at some places where retail is evolving and also where it isn’t. At a time when 41% of us currently find physical retail to be “less enjoyable” than it was pre-pandemic, it’s worth seeing who is actively trying to move that number up and who perhaps is putting in a bit less effort. 

Stagnation of the Fittest

The reason I was out and about in West London was to hunt down one of the  Tesco “GetGo” trial stores (essentially Amazon Go). Once I’d found it and updated my clubcard info the experience was exactly as advertised. A piece of engineering genius which allowed me to leave with 3 easily scannable items, avoid all human interaction and save (in an empty store) approximately no time at all. All very clever but an experience that leaves you wondering on exit whether there are also people at Tesco working on anything tasty, attractive or interesting?


Tesco have been the Empire to my resistance for most of my career and have been thoroughly effective throughout that time, continuing a near century of supermarket domination of food retail. It’s not always been pretty to watch the major supermarkets remorselessly overpower any smaller creatures in their way. Darwin would admire their cunning though -  often dressing up as their prey (aggressive mimicry as it’s known in the animal world) to lure customers with the high quality counters or personal service that replicated the high street at the time. Having swallowed up those high street customers they began to dress up like corner stores or petrol forecourt retailers - whatever disguise has been needed to satisfy the appetite.


However, it’s now almost 30 years since the first Tesco Express appeared to take on the convenience sector and frankly there’s not been a lot new for physical store customers since. With online a focus for many, store procreation has become less of a priority than store prolongation and with no new victims to swallow, there’s been little need for aggressive mimicry or much impetus to keep standards high. Right now the internal innovation effort of Tesco and others seems most geared towards stopping me nicking stuff or adding digital screens wherever they think a supplier will pony up cash to advertise. 


In future articles I’ll try to look more closely at some of the challenges that supermarkets have when it comes to being interesting to customers (something I’ve spent many years working on - occasionally successfully). But for now, I’d be confident in predicting that the post-Covid supermarket offer (price, cost efficiency, fewer people, more basic service) has something to do with that “less enjoyable” score.

The most adaptable to change?

So if supermarkets (whilst still the strongest) are settling for an oligarchy of competent mediocrity, where would Darwin look for evidence of a bit more evolution?


When I started working in London there were a number of legendary independent stores that had survived and thrived by delighting customers with their quality, service, sustainability, ambience etc (Ginger Pig, La Fromagerie, Neal’s Yard, Villandry for example). What Darwin might have wondered is why there was never much reproduction going on. Was it that stores this excellent could only survive in a handful of affluent spots?


15-20 years on the impression the answer seems to be no. In fact there are quite a lot more excellent stores than back then. Three small examples:


  • A packed Gail’s - one of 100 of which most are in and around London. As ever it was in a stunning building, beautifully presented and well staffed with their online offer clearly communicated in the window. 

  • A busy Grind store which as ever was cool, buzzy and coffee through and through. One of only 14 cafes, coffee shops or trucks; all of which say everything you need about a brand which is scaling quickly through D2C and Grocery.

  • The Fortnum and Mason ground floor, overrun with people, many of whom were buying Fortnum’s classic gift products whilst others stood on the central staircase filming the latest interactive display. How many people were at home somewhere in the world ordering their hamper online is anyone’s guess.


So what’s different about these businesses that means that their stores are wonderful but they are still able to reproduce? 9 years ago Canadian futurist Doug Stephens wrote an article where he predicted that stores would become far more media channel than distribution channel. In explaining this he said “this, of course, is not to suggest that the retail space of the future won’t sell products—but that the sale of those products from within the four walls of the store will cease to be a priority. Instead, the goal of the store will be to create experiences so powerful that they catalyze sales across all available purchase points and channels.”


The more I wandered through London this week, the more I thought about Doug’s prediction, and of a quote from a lecture I once attended which signed off with “the art of strategy is to stay one step ahead of the need to be efficient”.


Each of the 3 businesses I walked past seems to be carefully balancing their offer and investment between physical estate, their own online business and grocery channels. They all do it slightly differently but what they have in common is the pure excellence of their physical offer and a consistency of product quality regardless of channel. Their physical stores are their media channel (and are therefore fantastic) and their other channels are thoroughly complementary whilst requiring far less capex. My trips to see these brands at their fabulous best in London validate and reinforce my decisions to buy them in between times on Ocado.

Darwin initially struggled with the reason for the peacock’s tail which he saw as purposeless. However, once he began to recognise the relevance of beauty (amongst other attributes) in sexual selection he slotted it nicely into his theory of evolution.


It is nice to see these high street peacocks thriving. It is even nicer to think that a compelling brand environment might become more rather than less fundamental to a successful retail proposition than it has been at times in the past. Back when Darwin lived in Shrewsbury, the high street was full of peacocks. 200 years on and after a challenging few decades, the peacock population might just be on the rise again.


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