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Food service becomes key part of the shopping experience

26 January 2006
Food service becomes key part of the shopping experience

Last November's opening of a tearoom in Liberty's iconic store in central London is symbolic of wider developments in department-store food service.

Shops used to tuck their cafés and restaurants away at the top of their premises, believing that the long journey through a maze of departments gave customers a chance to eye as much merchandise as possible.

But Liberty's latest addition, opened under the guidance of Keith Shearer, executive chef at the Malmaison hotel chain -
a sister company under the Marylebone Warwick Balfour umbrella - has a ground-floor, street-side setting deliberately positioned to grab passing trade.

Quintessential

The area occupied by the tearoom, called TEA, once sold jewellery, but Liberty's bean-counters decided the return per square foot could be higher selling tea and cakes rather than art deco earrings and necklaces. Now customers can enjoy what Shearer calls "the quintessential English tearoom experience" - including bone china, silver milk jugs, and a menu so retro it ought to be wearing a cloche hat.

Eating out has always been an integral part of the shopping experience, but was generally seen as a "distress purchase" when customers were either too hungry or too fractious to carry on spending. But, like the overall eating-out market, it has picked up significantly in recent years. A survey last year found 40% of people bought meals or snacks when shopping - double the level of the 1980s.

Before the rise of the out-of-town shopping centre, retailers and developers didn't worry much about the eating-out experience. But developments such as Bluewater in Kent and Meadowhall in Sheffield changed all that by including a range of food service operators.

The plan was to keep shoppers and their wallets on site and centres now ensure their food offering matches people's greater expectations of the dining-out experience. Customers now want Zizzi's not Deep Pan Pizza, Gourmet Burger rather than McDonald's and Nando's instead of KFC.

Department stores have had to keep pace. In order to meet growing expectations, some retail outlets are starting to open their restaurants and cafés earlier and close later to maximise trading. Harrods, for example, now opens its in-store restaurants and cafés at 8am - two hours before the store starts business. They close at 9pm - two hours after the store shuts.

Jonathan Doughty, managing director of consultancy Coverpoint, says the changes are not a direct reaction to stiffer competition from shopping centres, but the result of a general raising of the bar that has seen a deeper integration of eating out and shopping. "Consumers are looking for the complete experience, shopping and food service together, which includes coffee in the morning, a light lunch, and then maybe dinner before the theatre or cinema in the evening," he says.

Sophisticated
Other attempts to satisfy shoppers' increasingly sophisticated palates have seen House of Fraser bring Caffè Nero concessions into its stores. Marks & Spencer has also experimented with a "sit-down-and-eat" area in the deli departments of two stores, where customers can order a glass of wine with food brought from the deli section. A table-service restaurant will open at its Newcastle store in April.

Although Doughty believes more stores will follow suit, he warns that retailing and food service are specialities that few people can master at the same time. If retailers are serious about good food service, rather than including it as a top-floor afterthought, then footfall is key, he says. "The quality of traffic will let you deliver the quality of food service."

Tony Horton, managing director of consultancy Tricon, is also doubtful about the ability of some stores to boost their eating-out offer. He believes the current changes in department-store food service are relatively small compared with the bigger leaps forward in quality that have taken place in the past.

Recent moves
Horton praises Harvey Nichols for "getting it spot on" - successfully developing its own in-store restaurant and then going on to run a fine-dining restaurant at the Oxo Tower. Among more recent moves, he approves of the arrival of Carluccio's in Fenwicks stores - significantly, the chain is in both a shopping centre store, Brent Cross, and a city centre branch in New Bond Street, London.

But he says success stories are the exception and cites Marks & Spencer as a more typical model. "I've seen them try out a number of different food service formats over the past 10 to 15 years, mess them up and scrap them. The problem is logistical and not the food - it's about getting the central catering right. There's a huge difference between stacking shelves high and delivering a decent food service."

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