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I did my ‘big shop’ at Waitrose and M&S – here’s who came out on top

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Waitrose & Partners Lemon Tart, £3.75 for 300g (£1.25/100g); M&S Food Lemon tart, £4.75 for 400g (£1.19/100g)

Size isn’t everything. The M&S one is a third bigger (both are stated to serve six), but it has a bland, weirdly gelatinous filling, like the base of a packet-mix lemon meringue pie. Faith in patisserie is restored by the Waitrose version, singing with zingy lemon curd and shortbread-rich buttery pastry.

Winner: Waitrose


In-store experience

M&S Cribbs Causeway (which opened in The Mall in 1998), with its satiny black floors and black shelving, looks more luxe. It’s less cluttered too: not stocking much in the way of other brands keeps the displays looking smart. In contrast, Waitrose Portishead (opened in 2003) is a bit scuffed around the edges, with an arguably hectic array of products. 

Winner: M&S

Customer service

I can’t find the blocks of parmesan in M&S. I catch the eye of a staff member who is busy checking stock and she jumps up immediately, smiling warmly. In no time she’d taken me to the right shelf (I was sure I’d checked there already), established exactly which kind of parmesan I wanted, before handing me the right cheese. I feel well looked after.

In Waitrose staff members are chatting by the customer service desk when I approach but a friendly staff member immediately springs into action when I ask where the baskets are, dashing off to get me one. She’s obviously clocked me looking at the marked-down fruit and veg and gives me a rundown on where in the store to find more end-of-day bargains. 

Winner: both 5-star service


Overall

Marks & Spencer is the king of the after-work shop. The store I visited is easy to navigate, packed with good ideas and delicious quick fixes with lots of healthy options and an excellent wine selection. 

Plus, the brand’s traceability standards are impressive: unlike other supermarkets, it names the farm its chicken is from and the dairy the parmesan is made in. 

Sure, there’s less choice without the full range of household brands (though you’ll still find staples like Marmite and, bizarrely, Bachelor’s mushy peas) but at its best it feels like a curated selection, and far less stressful than hitting a more mainstream supermarket.

Where M&S falls down is with “big cook” ingredients. Although the basics are there, they are limited: there are dried lentils and black beans but no chickpeas or kidney beans. The range of herbs and spices was more limited than at Waitrose. 

Sometimes, I think M&S tries too hard. Kudos for being the first supermarket to introduce charging for plastic bags, but I’m less sure about the latest move, switching to paper bags only at the checkout. Paper bags tend not to be as durable as, and have a higher carbon footprint than, plastic; plus they are usually worse than useless in rain. Marks insists its versions are reusable, sustainable and water repellent, but I still wouldn’t want to risk using one to carry my shopping home in a downpour. 

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