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A Critical Assessment of Waitrose’ Growth and Development in the UK Market

Nyamweya is a Kenyan scholar who has done many years of research on a diversity of topics


1. Introduction

The retails sector has experienced significant changes in the 21st century in United Kingdom. The level of diversity and the pace at which changes commence in this sector has attracted people’s attention (Wood and McCarthy 2014) The promising retail business in the last couple of years have spurted the emergence of new initiatives that were instigated by retailers who were looking to gain competitive advantages in the retail sector that has continued to be competitive days by days. The most notable of theses is the digital nature of the retail business originated form USA and China (Johnston & Huggins 2017). The UK retail market is mainly comprised of a mature population, with the number of citizens above the age of 45 making up 63% of the total population. Although this group of customers are known for spending less, there has been a dramatic increase in the spending power in recent decade. Nonetheless, the tendency to spend on luxury among the young generations is also on a high note (Jones 2017).

A contemporary market appraisal was conducted and the growth of Waitrose in the UK market was assessed in this report. This report begins with an overview of the company, followed by the analysis of the UK market environment, the market position of Waitrose in the UK market, and the international expansion opportunities. The last part is the conclusion which summarises the report.

2. Waitrose in the UK Grocery Market

2.1 Company Information

Waitrose is a big chain of supermarkets in Britain, which forms the John Lewis partnership. Waitrose is the largest food retail business in Britain that is employee owned. (, 2018). Waitrose has its head offices based in England Berkshire, Bracknell. It had acquired around 300 branches across United Kingdom by February 2015, including 30 convenience shops (Bloomberg 2018). The market share for the supermarket was 5.1% by then, making Waitrose the sixth biggest grocery shop in United Kingdom (Topić and Tench 2017). Waitrose exports goods to around 56 countries globally and has shops in the Middle East. Waitrose’s reputation has been described as “upmarket” by newspapers such as the Guardian, though the former Director had suggested that when its prices are compared to the prices of competitive markets, that is not the case.

Waitrose has a royal warrant which enables it to supply wine, spirits, and groceries to Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II (Bloomberg 2018). The company was founded in 1904 by Arthur Rose, Wallace Waite and David Taylor as a grocery store. The name Waitrose was adopted in 1908 after David Taylor had left Waite and Rose. By 1937, Waitrose had acquired ten shops and around 150 employees and was sold to the John Lewis partnership. The partnership went ahead to purchase the South Essex grocery store which was owned by Martin and Scofield. South Essex had 12 shops, thereby; adding the number of stores in Waitrose to 22 (Bllomberg 2018). This number has since increased over the years. With the increase number of stores and services provided by Waitrose, the company has since become more famous. By August 206, the company had a total of 350 shops in United Kingdom, and a cashless shop launched, which is based at its headquarter so as to gain competitive advantages. (Askew 2013).

2.2 Critical assessment of Waitrose’ growth and development in the UK market

In the current perspective, there has been an upsurge of online shopping. 6% of the market prefers to use the virtual market platform rather than their local markets in recent times. ( 2017). This trend has raised the volatility of UK retail market at the end of January 2017. Since then, ALDI was considered to be the 5th largest supermarket in Britain (, 2018). Between the years 2009 to 2017, Waitrose has generated approximate revenue of 4.4 billion British pounds in UK sales. The supermarket is the seventh largest grocery retailer in Britain. Despite occupying a smaller market share compared to the big four supermarkets, it appeals to those who have a higher level of disposable income. And that is the reason why Waitrose had been regarded as the ‘Up Market’. In other words, it is preferred among the elites ( 2018). Currently, the chain has six Food and Home stores which are located in Southend, Bath, Leeds Meanwood, Chelteham, Salisbury, and Rushden. There is also one Waitrose Food, & Home and Food shop in Canary Wharf. Both of these shops have enough space to provide a wide range of John Lewis products across the UK. Other than the grocery sector, Waitrose has also incorporated other departments, including photo processing, Sushi, Oyster counter, Juice Bar, Salad, Post Office and photo processing. Currently, Waitrose has 5.1% share in food market, 19% in the organic food and 12% in the fish market, which is relatively small compared to the big four grocery retailers in UK ( 2018).

3. Market Appraisal

3.1 Evolution of the grocery Market in the UK

The concept of wheel of retailing by Philip Kotler was adopted in the analysis of the grocery market evolution. The basic of the model suggests that new forms of retailers have to complete a full wheel (Bhatia 2008), with new entrants commence as a low-margin, low status operations and low priced retailers; slowly evolved and developing into high-priced retailers. Through the cycle, new entrants slowly develop into conventional retailers through raising the level and quality of services (Bhasin 2017), as illustrated below;

Figure 1: The wheel of retailing model. Source: Baker and Saren (2010)

Similarly, the UK grocery market has evolved following the wheel of retailing concept, In particular, the UK grocery market has developed from smaller low-priced shops and later transformed into supermarket chains operating within the local regions. However, there are some retails firms have become multilateral in nature. This will give it a value of £213 billion (IGD 2018). According to a research report by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), the growth of the grocery market is anticipated to occur across all grocery channels. On the other hand, retailers are predicted to have strong performance which is driven by aggressive store opening initiatives, range investments and refurbishment of old stores (Finch 2017). According to IGD forecasts, 1 in every 7 dollars will be spent at a retailer, which is an improvement from 1 in every 9 dollars at the moment. (IGD 2018).

3.2 Position of Waitrose in the market

Among the largest groceries stores in UK including Sainsbury, Tesco and Morrison, which claim a significant market share, Tesco has been the leader which holds over 20 percent of the market share(Bloomberg 2018). A report by (2018) also indicates that Tesco and Sainsbury holds the largest share in the UK grocery market from 2015 to 2017. Both of these two companies held approximately 43.5 percent of the market share as of March 2017, as illustrated below:

Figure 2; Grocery market share in the UK. Source: BBC News (2017)

Before this, the grocery retail market was dominated by four big chain supermarkets such as Sainsbury, Tesco, Morrison and ASDA. However, a lot of business and industries are facing difficulties following economic recession, (when is the economic recession and what is the reference) with customers app for discounted stores and cheaper alternatives. Consequently, a “Price War” was initiated, causing the supermarkets to reduce their prices to remain competitive. Since then, there was upsurge of food share sales volume in the UK.

Despite with this phenomena, Waitrose has emerged as a high-priced business entity among all the other competitors. Waitrose has their business focused on the freshness of goods sold and the product qualities. This has appealed to many customers, which includes both the elites and the middle-class customers. Over the years, Waitrose has continued to succeed through providing excellent customers service and ethical conducts. The price and quality of products offered by different retailers in United Kingdom are summarized in the diagram below.

Figure 3: Perceptual map for retailers in the UK (source: author)

3.3 Key Developments in the retail sector

The UK grocery business environment has been marked by a significant level of developments and evolution in this 21st century. For instance, the industry is gradually being digitalized with many businesses endeavouring to incorporate e-marketing and digital operations to enhance productivity and marketing initiatives (Wood and McCarthy 2014). Physical barriers in retail and marketing are slowly being eliminated. Specifically, online sales are being driven by three trends namely competitive pricing, convenient collection and smart shopping. Regarding competitive pricing, retailers are adopting low cost delivery which appeals to many consumers (Ramanathan et al 2017). Besides, groceries retailers are offering convenient collection, for instance, placing lockers at strategic points such as train stations. Additionally, smart shopping has been embraced in the industry whereby smart and digital devices are used to make purchases (Finch 2017).

Notably, majority of UK supermarket chains, Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose have ventured into online grocery shopping, causing tremendous impact to the businesses ( 2018b). Within the UK, on-line spending is growing at 16.2% per annum while over 38 million people in the UK make their shopping online (Santander Trade Portal 2018). This means that the reception for online purchases is high. Meanwhile, companies that fail to adapt online shopping system are at a disadvantage. According to the British Consortium, cashless transactions are now accounting for almost half of all transactions in the UK (Shaw, 2017). It is further revealed that 10 years after its introduction, and which were met by lukewarm reception; cashless reception has now worn over the public in the UK (Jones 2017). Grocery retailers including Morrisons, Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda, and Waitrose among many others are already embracing the use of cashless transactions with impeccable results (Santander Trade Portal 2018). This method of making purchases is user friendly and consequently, spending has increased.

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Click and collect model has also played an important part in recent retailing where customers make orders online and pick the items in store. A lot of competitors have participated in this model. Among these players is Fresh Direct which has used a third-party retailer to provide such capabilities (Shaw 2017). Click & Collect has developed different business models used by different retailers. These digital operations have consequently increased transparency in assortment and pricing. Consequently, retailers are increasingly required to re-examine their pricing strategy, as well as track inventory for the purpose of aligning shopper expectations accordingly (RetailNet Group 2015).

Another development in the UK retail sector is the aspect of checkout-free grocery store, initially developed by Amazon (Johnstone 2018). This is whereby; artificial intelligence is employed for calculating, when a specific item is removed from the store shelf and taken outside, and the users’ account is automatically debited when necessary (Prasons 2017).

The purpose of this endeavour is to provide customers with a more efficient shopping experience. Customers who are time-pressed have embraced this technology since it makes their shopping quicker. Furthermore, this development has given supermarkets the opportunity to cut costs and operating expenses. This owes to the fact that human labor which is mostly expensive has been replaced with automated systems (Prasons 2017).

3.4 The market’s current retail structure

The retail structure will be evaluated using Alexander and Doherty’s (2009) Model. The framework outlines the factors that contributes the market activity management and determines the retail structure of a specific industry. These factors include market concentration, product sector balance, employment profile, and enterprise density and innovation levels (Alexander and Doherty 2009). The figure below presents an illustration of the Alexander and Doherty (2010) Model. The model will be employed in analysing the current retail structure in the UK market.

Figure 4; measuring the retail structure. Source: Alexander and Doherty (2010)

In term of Enterprise Density, The UK grocery market is dominated by a few major players, in other words, highly oligopolistic (Economics Online 2014) Currently, four major players dominate the UK retail industry, namely Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrison, and Asda (BBC News 2017). Sainsbury and Tesco are among the largest grocers in the UK in terms of size and growth. On the other hand, Tesco and Morrison are considered to be the best and highly rated by the public (Bloomberg 2018).

In term of Innovation Level, the industry is being digitalized gradually with many businesses endeavouring to incorporate e-marketing and digital operations to enhance productivity and marketing initiatives (Office of the National Statistics 2018). Recently, there has been an upsurge of online shopping with 6% of the market preferring to use the virtual market platform rather than their local markets ( 2017).

In term of Market Concentration, Sainsbury’s and Tesco hold the largest share over this period. Both of these firms held approximately 43.7 percent of the market share as of March 2017 (BBC News 2017). Before this development, the grocery retail market was basically dominated by four big supermarkets. They include Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrison, and Asda ( 2017).

In term of Employment Level, Food and grocery is among the largest private sector employers in the UK. Millions of people are employed across various supply chains. Precisely, 3.9 million works in farming, catering, and retailing, wholesaling and manufacturing (Finch 2017). The sector provides employment opportunities for the unemployed, students, and young people. At the end of 2017, more than 4.5 million people, constituting approximately 15.2% of the total population in the country were working in the industry (Rhodes, and Brien 2018). This makes this industry the largest employer in the country.

In term of Product Sector Balance- UK is considered to be the highest seller of foodstuffs and other grocery items in the whole world. Key products in the grocery retail sector include common vegetables, fruits, meats, bakery, mead, remoulade, grains and all types of green products (Cottle 2016). The varieties in products provide the businesses with diversification in grocery area.

4. The Role of International Expansion for the international expansion of Waitrose.

4.1 The role of international expansion in Waitrose recent development (past five years)

In 2013, the market shares if Waitrose increased from 4.7% to 4.9%. Meanwhile, the company oversaw an increase of sales by 7.6%, a move that was largely attributed to international and local space expansions (Askew 2013). Furthermore, the operating profits rose to £136m by 0.6% ( 2018). The profits superseded those of Morrison. In 2014, the sales for Waitrose began declining. Such decline was experienced by the general UK grocery market, which was thought to be due to the exceptional high-level of growth and expansion initiatives. During this time, the company began outperforming the market and was able to respond accordingly to changing market dynamics (Farrell 2014).

Continuously, the profit of Waitrose declined in 2015. For instance, the for-like sales of Waitrose were down for the whole 2015.Similarly, profit for exceptional items and profit before tax decreased by 26% (Farrell 2014). The main reason that causes this decline is the higher pension charges paid for employees. In 2015, the pension charges were approximately £60m higher than that of 2014. Generally, tax, bonus and exceptions were deceased from £342.6m to around £272m - £322m (Nickerson 2015).

This trend was observed in 2016 as well, making the decline a consistent three-year issue. Apart from the higher pension paid, the expanded pool of employees also attributed to the decline in 2016. The problem was also escalated by fierce competition in the grocery market. Furthermore, the market environment was also challenging (Davies 2016). The company’s expansion initiatives continued to take a toll on the business in 2017 as its profits continued to move towards a downward trajectory. This was also fuelled by the reduction of customer demanding due to political uncertainty and inflationary pressures. The retailer’s pre-tax profits tumbled by 53.3% to £26.6m during this period. This was largely blamed on the high cost of the business overhaul and the changing shopping and customer behaviours (Samaritan 2017).

In 2017, Waitrose opened a new store in Dubai through a partnership with Fine Fare Food Market ( 2018). The firm was mandated to run the retailer’s operations in Dubai including sales of Waitrose’s products such as bakery, vegetables, frozen foods and delicatessen. In addition, a customer can also source cheese, confectionery, British mill, pasta and yogurts from Fine Fare Food Market. Consequently, the demand for Waitrose’s products from global audiences has been rising. These audiences include locals who have heard about Waitrose’s products and British citizens in the country. As a result, the brand recognition is improved in this region which can benefit its expansion in the world. (Pullman 2017).

From this five-year performance review, it is evident that Waitrose has been undergoing tumultuous years in its business. The company’s performance has been declining on a consistent level. This has been largely blamed on overhaul and expansion costs together with the dynamic customer demands. In this regard, this entity needs to devise other mechanisms of maintaining sustainability and improve its general performance in the local and international market.

4.2 The role of international expansion for Waitrose’s future development (next five years)

Several benefits are derived from international expansion, which includes greater opportunities for diversification and market growth (Wood and McCarthy 2014). By expanding into other markets, it is probable that Waitrose will reap from the widened market base in foreign markets. These opportunities include a widened market base, more talent source and new experience. A study undertaken by Wells Fargo in 2017 noted that approximately 87% of American organisations believed that international expansion is crucial for long-term growth (Wells Fargo 2017). Despite the fact that expansion initiatives may initially reduce Waitrose’s revenue and general performance, the benefits will be realised in the long-term perspective.

At internationalization stage, a business is often satisfied once its strategies achieve its objectives. However, it is believed that this is the riskiest stage since a lot of capital, resources and other outputs are needed for a successful implementation of this phase (Charles 2015). Furthermore, the projected returns are always on the long-term aspect. This means that a business must prepare itself for reduced returns reduced a possible generation of losses. Moreover, the business must re-evaluate itself in terms of resource capability and strategy to achieve the purpose (Wood and McCarthy 2014).

After the internationalization stage, it is now possible for the business to generate consistent revenue and increase its customer pool. In this regard, Waitrose’s cash flow will probably improve since the recurring revenue will assist in covering the ongoing expenses. Therefore, the company should expect a slowly but steady improved phase in tis profit. (Wells Fargo, 2017) Nonetheless, the company must prepare itself for plausible challenges that may rise from increased and new demands, changing customer expectations, severe completion and expanding and diverse workforce (Wood and McCarthy 2014).

As mentioned previously, the reach to a new market is one of the greatest benefits of international expansion. For Waitrose, this new market will imply a potential increase in the volume of sales and hence profits (Knight 2015). Therefore, Waitrose’s general revenue is likely to improve to a significant level once the internationalisation is successfully implemented. For many business organisations, international expansion provides an opportunity of reaching New consumers and occupying new territories and conquering new territories, hence raising sales. For example, both IBM and NIKE have operations in the Netherlands, through which they have gained access to more than 200 million consumers in the European market. (Lancaster and Massingham 2017)

Regarding the opportunity to pertain diversification, Waitrose will be able to diversity its assets and resources. (Wood and McCarthy 2014) This initiative will protect a company from unpredictable events. For instance, an internationalized organization can offset negative growth of a bad behaved market with the returns of other good performed markets. An organisation can as well employ international markets by introducing unique services and or products. This can assist in maintaining a positive stream of revenue (Knight 2015).

Ideally, Waitrose’s international expansion will be a major step towards diversifying its operations on a global scale. This can be achieved by offering products and services that are highly demanded in a specific market, which in turn will lead to increased sales. Arguably, increased sales and subsequent profits will enable Waitrose to cement its international operations. Besides, this move will be an endeavour to grow a portfolio that is diversely and globally attractive (Stafford 2012). Internationalisation will as well enable Waitrose to recruit new and diverse talents from various quarters. In many perspectives, international and diverse labor can provide unique benefits to business entities such as advanced skills in language, raised productivity, diverse knowledge and education backgrounds among others (Lukic 2016).

5. Potential markets of Waitrose’s international expanding scheme.

5.1 Analysis of international macro-economic indicators

There are several macro-economic indicators that significantly influence retailors’ operations in the international markets. Firstly, retail sales are identified as an important macro-economic indicator for foreign business operators (AtKearney 2018). It describes the overall success of the retail stores as well as the strength of consumer spending. Furthermore, the report of retail sales highlights consumer’s spending patterns which can also benefit the assessment of the immediate trajectory of the economy (Little 2017). In terms of total sales, US and China are the first and second largest retail markets in the world (Ross 2018). However, a recent study on the retail sales indicates that China will probably overtake US by 2020.

Secondly, before setting up its business in new markets, retailers such as Waitrose should also consider the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the market.

GDP reviews the total market value of all services and goods produced within the country for a specified time frame. (Mankiw, and Taylor, 2011) This includes, but not limited to production by foreign entities operating within the nations territories but excluding operations of the country’s companies working abroad (Alpari Limited 2018). GDP is a macro-economic indicator for the business strength, the economy strength and the wealth of workers and consumers. This index is considered as important indicator by investors in determining their capital deployments. (Leaf Group Ltd, 2018). According to Statistic Times (2018), the world’s top five economies in terms of GDP are the US, China, Japan, German and the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, Consumer Price Index (CPI) is another macro-economic indicator used in assessing the change in the cost of services and consumer goods (AtKearney 2018). According to the annual estimates by the International Monetary Fund, there will be a relatively low increase of prices for goods and services in 2018 (IMF 2018). Such a low change in prices implies that the prices of services and goods will remain stable and predictable. This will therefore reduce the uncertainties that firms operating in the country may confronter. On the other hand, the low rate of inflation indicates an expansion of the country’s economy as manifested in the GDP’s growth (AtKearney 2018). Countries with the lowest inflation rates include Japan, Israel, Switzerland and Taiwan while the countries with the highest inflation include Venezuela, DR Congo and Egypt ( 2018), as shown in the figure below;

Figure 5; Inflation rates among countries. Source: Focus Economic (2017)

Additionally, polices and regulations that guide the operations of business is another important macro-economic indicator. Regulations such as employment relations, wages, and work environments directly and indirectly affect businesses. This applies to both local and foreign companies (Gulen, and Mihai 2013) accordingly, foreign firms should reconsider the policy of the intended market and how they will affect businesses. Furthermore, potential risks arisen from contract repudiation, expropriation, confiscation and currency inconvertibility should also be considered (IGD 2018).

Other possible scenario that may be experienced in some countries includes currency devaluation and insurance issues. According to Forbes ranking, The five most friendly countries for foreign investors are: the UK, New Zealand, Netherlands, Sweden, and Canada (Forbes 2018).

5.2 Specific New International Market for Waitrose to expand into

The Potential new market for Waitrose will be analyzed through a market scanning framework introduced by Swoboda et al. (2009). According to this framework, it is important to gather knowledge about foreign markets one is interested in through a feasibility study. This model identified the potential market though desk research, use of country scoring model, competition factors, and use of feasibility study. Core components and requirement of this framework are presented in figure 6;

Figure 6; Market Scanning Framework. Source: Swoboda et al (2009)

Accordingly, in the preliminary evaluation stage, United States, China and Spain have been identified as the potential international markets for Waitrose to venture into (Lukic 2016).

United States has a similar retail market structure to United Kingdom, making it a familiar environment for Waitrose. The US has a premium food range, which make it an ideal destination for food retail businesses (Knight 2015). In other words, the demand is high. However, labour costs and high competition in the US (Lukic 2016) could be a hinder to this business expansion.

China presents as an alternative choice of business platform expansion. This owes to the fact that in China, there are ready customers with high demand (Lancaster and Massingham 2017). The fact that Chinese customers prefer going to prominent supermarkets or retail shops (Johnston and Huggins 2017) makes it an easier quest for Waitrose to set up business in China. The low labour costs in China, yielding a low cost of operation (Lukic 2016) for the company adds another advantage for business setting up in China.

As of Lancaster and Massingham (2017) assertion, Waitrose-branded commodities exported to other countries are a good indication of how Waitrose has integrated successfully into global market. Waitrose exports its products to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Spain, Greece, and Cyrus ( 2018), making them potential international markets for the company. Despite big competition with big companies such as M&S and Tesco, Waitrose branded goods are unique and may attract more clients than its competitors. Despite all these, the most promising international market to be China. Locally in United Kingdom, Waitrose’s growth continues to outpace bigger rival such as Tesco (Lancaster and Massingham 2017). The ability of Waitrose to offers its customers lower prices than its rivals enables it to win over customers days by days and this will enable Waitrose to gain business advantages in China. Every year, Waitrose invests around 40 million pounds, and about 40 percent is invested in marketing endeavours, with adverts in the TV featuring prominent celebrities (Finch 2017). Shall this commitment be established in China market, there shall be a positive impact in the business. Besides that, the fact that the competitors are not conversant with Waitrose’s business methods (Ramanathan et al 2017) will further fortify the international business establishment in the Chinese market.

6. Conclusion

This report aims to analyse the grocery business environment of UK, using Waitrose as the study case.

Accordingly, the author has employed the Wheel of Retailing Model and the Retail Market Structure in analysing the current market structure of the UK retail industry. This industry has been gradually digitalized as many businesses endeavoring to incorporate e-maketing and digital operations to enhance productivity and marketing initiatives.

To remain competitive, Waitrose can create an international presence in China by setting up flagship stores in major cities. This will enable it to explore potential opportunities in this particular market.

Based on the market analysis, China is an ideal market for their resemblance to UK retail market and their stable economies and political contexts. Furthermore, the competitors in Chinese market are not conversant with the methods used by Waitrose. Therefore, the consumers in China will gain a fresh experience which endows Waitrose a competitive advantage. As such, Waitrose is destined to realise considerable market success in China.


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Silas Nyamweya (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on December 24, 2020:

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