Whole Foods Aims for British Food Market

The Associated Press
Friday, June 1, 2007; 3:36 PM

LONDON -- Tasting stands, organic apples stacked ceiling high, yoga and an organic pub _ supermarket shopping in Britain is about to become a lot less mundane.

Whole Foods Market Inc., America's most successful organic supermarket chain, opens its massive flagship London store next week.

Some analysts say it will become a destination store. Others warn that the company faces an uphill battle to gain a foothold in an already overcrowded domestic supermarket sector.

Either way, Whole Foods _ founded 30 years ago by Texan John Mackey, a Birkenstock-wearing, chicken-keeping advocate of natural foods _ is jumping, rather than wading, in.

The company's new store in the affluent neighborhood of Kensington will stretch across three floors of a former art deco department store, making it far bigger than any existing grocery store in Britain. It plans to follow that up with another 30 to 40 stores across the country.

Like Whole Foods stores across the United States, the focus is on fresh, organic, natural food. There will be no artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives or hydrogenated fats and customers will be paid around 10 cents for each bag they supply themselves.

There's also more than just food. Along with offering facials and chair massages, the company will sell clothing, towels and linens made from organic cotton.

In the United States, it is a celebrity-spotters' haunt, with Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal all seen stocking up in its glistening wide aisles.

Whole Foods itself describes its stores as an "exciting place to shop, eat, meet friends, and enjoy naturally delicious food" in a festive street market atmosphere.

"What they offer is breadth and depth of range," said Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Planet Retail. "People will travel into London to visit this store."

But others are not so sure.

"It's a leap of faith, even though the market is theoretically favorable," said Robert Clark, an analyst at the Retail Knowledge Bank consulting group.

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