Durham – a rare blip in the Waitrose success story
In recent weeks, hardly a day has gone by without some good news involving Waitrose – if it isn’t stellar sales figures, it’s been news about stocking 100% British own-brand dairy products, snapping up Duchy Originals, selling its products in Boots, expanding its presence in motorway service areas, or planning to ramp up its move into convenience.
Meanwhile, the retailer continues to grow its store portfolio at a rapid rate – now up to 215 shops, including new stores in Winchester, Colchester and Weston-super-Mare within the last six weeks alone.
By and large, the recent Waitrose story has therefore been one of growth and success, with the retailer – and, indeed, the John Lewis Partnership as a whole – very much in the habit of opening stores, rather than closing them.
Against this backdrop, I’ve always been rather curious about quite what went wrong with Waitrose’s Durham branch, in The Gates shopping centre. A former Safeway store, the 18,000 sq ft branch was acquired following Safeway’s takeover by Morrisons; though considered too small at the time for conversion to the Morrisons format, it was not one of the 53 or so overlapping stores that the Competition Commission had required Morrisons to divest. Rather, the assumption was that it was a location that Waitrose actively wanted.
The Durham store opened as Waitrose, to much fanfare, in November 2005 – not surprising, given that it was the retailer’s first presence in North East England, and at the time its most northerly store in the UK. Barely two years later, however, in January 2008, the store’s closure was announced after it had continually “traded at a loss”.
Echoing Waitrose’s closure of another former Morrisons acquisition, in Southport, in 2006 – just two years after it had opened – the announcement demonstrated how the retailer was capable of decisive action in those rare situations where a store was unsuccessful. However, Waitrose’s thriving store in Hexham – another former Safeway, bought from Morrisons and opened in November 2006 – showed that there was nothing stopping the retailer from making a go of it in the North East.
Waitrose Durham finally closed its doors in August last year, designed to coincide with the opening of a new (but much smaller) store in the Eldon Square shopping centre, in nearby Newcastle. More recently, in May this year, a third North East Waitrose opened in Ponteland, taking the place of the village’s Somerfield (itself a former Safeway). For a Waitrose fan like me, the retailer’s shift northwards is undoubtedly welcome; after all, prior to 2004 there was no Waitrose store more northerly than Newark.
Embarrassingly, until a few weeks ago, I had never paid a proper, sightseeing visit to Durham. So I determined to set out, curious to take a look at the former Waitrose site and to see what had become of it. That sums me up, you see – most people visit Durham to take in the wonderful cathedral; my first stop was a shut-up supermarket.
Wandering from the bus station along North Road and into the The Gates shopping centre, my initial reaction was one of slight bemusement. To me, this end of town felt very much like a secondary pitch, with The Gates’ roster of tenants – Poundland, The X Catalogue Store, Yorkshire Trading Co. – as well as those in nearby streets, not appearing to be the most natural bedfellows for a Waitrose.
On a Friday towards noon, The Gates was also eerily quiet – so much so that I was able to overtly take a photo of the old Waitrose store (above) without anyone noticing. It was a rather sad sight, really – the store’s frontage was partly obscured by a deserted carousel and stacks of plastic crates (presumably belonging to the adjacent Yorkshire Trading Co.), but no amount of hiding could disguise the fact that this was a very large and very empty unit.
My initial reaction was reinforced once I’d crossed over the river, taking the Millburngate Bridge towards Durham’s Market Place and the newer Prince Bishops shopping centre. Where The Gates felt peripheral, the Market Place area – buoyed by the presence of big names such as Bhs, Next, Marks and Spencer and Topshop, as well as lots of street entertainment – felt very much like the heart of the city centre. The area was buzzing and full of people, including plenty of students and visitors.
Tellingly, I noted that a Tesco Metro had opened up in the city’s former Woolworths store. You might well wonder, as I did, why Tesco hadn’t simply taken over the Waitrose site instead – essentially, I suspect that it’s because the old Woolworths site is a much busier and more attractive location than that on the other side of the river. Ironically, the old Woolies would probably have been a really good place for a Waitrose too.
Overall, following my visit to Durham, it seemed pretty clear to me why the Waitrose store had not been the hoped-for success – in short, because of where it was. Situated among the wrong types of shops, on the wrong side of the river, at the wrong end of town, away from the tourist and student hotspots, everything about the location in The Gates just felt wrong. I kept thinking to myself, did Waitrose actually visit this site before signing up for it?
In the right place, I think a Waitrose in Durham could have been successful; after all, other newer stores in the north of England and beyond, such as the ones in Sheffield and Edinburgh, appear to do very well with students and locals alike. As it is, Waitrose’s abortive dalliance with Durham is probably best viewed as a rare, but interesting, blip in the retailer’s recent success story.