By Scott Wright

THE boss of Iceland Foods Group has signalled the retailer’s appetite to expand its Food Warehouse concept in Scotland as the latest store under its brand opened in Glasgow.

Richard Walker declared the company would like to “open as many as we can” north of the Border while highlighting the relevance of the Food Warehouse model during the pandemic, observing that consumers are opting for larger weekly shops over more frequent trips to supermarkets.

Iceland Foods Group has invested £750,000 to develop the 12,000 square foot Food Warehouse on Crown Street in the Gorbals area, which opened yesterday. It employs 30 staff. The latest opening means there are now four Food Warehouse outlets Glasgow, and a total of 15 across Scotland.

Speaking exclusively to The Herald about the group’s plans for Food Warehouse in Scotland, Mr Walker said: “We find that the concept is well suited and well received. And, given the pandemic, we have actually found it [is] extremely relevant for communities not just across Scotland, but across England and Wales as well.”

Mr Walker added that the model benefits from a trend towards a “bigger weekly shop”, which was helping Food Warehouse win “more customers than ever”. He noted that shoppers are “seeing the benefit of bulk buying frozen foods, bigger packs, better value, and ultimately saving money.”

He said: “Food Warehouse has been playing quite a critical role in the recent pandemic and it is well set up for the weekly shopper. It has got an open-plan layout, and it is going down well.”

Mr Walker said the size of the Food Warehouse stores, which range from 8,000 to 25,000 sq ft, means they are well-placed to put social distancing measures in place. He noted that they are two to three times the size of normal Iceland stores, have wide aisles and free parking.

Asked to comment on the potential to further expand the Food Warehouse concept in Scotland, he replied that there was a “big appetite for as many as we can get”.

He said the company is targeting retail parks and would also consider building standalone units.

There are around 870 Iceland stores in the company’s store estate, and 122 in the rapidly-growing Food Warehouse chain. Mr Walker added: “I do think there is a real place for it in retail parks.”

Mr Walker’s was speaking as figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium showed retail sales plunged by more than 40 per cent in Scotland in April as the economy moved into lockdown. While total food sales decreased by 2.4% versus April 2019, total non-food sales were down by a massive 71.4%.

On whether he feels it is now the right time for the economy to begin re-opening, Mr Walker said: “We need to be led by the experts and scientists.

“We have got to follow the advice that is being given, but as a businessperson and someone who is very passionate about the health of the high street, we have to get the economy back on track.

“We have to think about our economic health as well as our physical health. Many livelihoods are at stake therefore we need to get the economy turning again and the shops back open, otherwise some businesses will not survive.

“People’s safety is paramount, but we have to get the wheels moving again. We are talking about a whole generation of jobs here.”

While there has been criticism from some quarters over the decision by government to give business rates relief to food retailers during the pandemic, Mr Walker defended the benefit.

He said although food retailers have been able to stay open during the crisis, their profits are “not the same” because the sector has faced “unprecedented costs”. Iceland has invested “tens of millions” of pounds in social distancing measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, and has had to “move mountains to get products on to shelves,” Mr Walker said.

Mr Walker argued there is a case for a “complete overhaul of the outdated taxation system to reflect modern ways of shopping”, citing the lower level of tax paid by online players such as Amazon compared with traditional bricks and mortar retailers.