Stephen Jardine: Wait no longer for top quality

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
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HELENSBURGH has arrived. You might have thought that happened a century ago when Charles Rennie Mackintosh built his famous Hill House in the town, but this week it really hit the big time – and all thanks to Waitrose.

The upmarket retailer chose Helensburgh as the location to open it’s 300th store and this is big news. Councillor Vivien Dance who performed the opening ceremony, said: “Today is a landmark day for Helensburgh when it officially becomes a Waitrose town.”

Waitrose town is an interesting phrase. When somewhere is called Tesco town it suggests shopping is all the worse for one retailer’s domination. But when that retailer is Waitrose, it’s a phrase worn as a badge of pride.

A century after Wait, Rose and Taylor opened their first grocery shop in London, Waitrose now has 300 stores throughout the UK, including six in Scotland.

I remember my first encounter with the brand many years ago. On a visit to posh relatives down south, I was sent on an errand and ended up in Waitrose. It was a world apart from my local Safeway store back home.

For a start, it had the kind of ingredients they used in TV cookery programmes. Secondly, my cursory visit for a small basket of items cost more than my total weekly shop in my supermarket back home. Despite, or perhaps because of that, Waitrose has always had a kudos the other multiple retailers can only dream about.

Proof of that is said to be the ripple effect it sends through communities.

“There’s been a lot of anecdotal talk from estate agents commenting on increased demand,” says Nigel Keen, the Waitrose director of development.

Or is that just the hype ? Waitrose locates stores where affluent customers live so defining a tangible benefit from an opening is almost impossible. But it remains the most desirable retailer to have in your back yard.

It’s also a great source of local entertainment because Waitrose is where the middle classes come out to play at the weekend. Weighed down with avocados and copies of the Guardian, they can be spotted signing petitions and recycling responsibly.

On a recent visit I was transfixed by a brisk argument between a couple about vanilla essence versus vanilla extract. It’s that kind of store.

You might have expected Waitrose to suffer during the recession but the opposite seems to have been true. While low-cost stores like Lidl and Aldi have boomed, Waitrose successfully targeted mid-market rivals like Tesco with an Essentials range that has helped it build market share every year. And the growth continues here.

Ayr is the next town due to receive the Waitrose effect and by 2015 a total of 20 Scottish stores are planned. Let’s hope there are enough avocados to go round.