Waitrose relaunched its online shopping service recently, and this prompted a hail of complaints on its own discussion board and several column inches of negative publicity in newspapers and blogs. 

The list of complaints ranges from performance speed to pure usability issues. Implementing change to an existing service can be difficult so we decided to test the new site with some potential users to see if this was a case of people reacting badly to something new, or whether indeed there was valid reason for concern.

As a comparison, we asked users to perform the same tasks on Tesco’s online shopping site and to give their preference.

Users were asked users to select five items to put in their shopping trolley: bread, eggs, sunflower oil, a red pepper and two tuna steaks, thinking aloud as they did so. 

First impressions

First impressions and opinions of the general look and feel were greatly in Waitrose’s favour. Whereas the Tesco site was described as too busy and off-putting, users described its rival as being cleaner, less cluttered and more ‘beautiful’. It is a design scheme that has clearly been well crafted.

But as in all things, the devil is in the detail and the slick design starts to fall apart when the user starts to interact with the page.

Users drew attention to the readability of product items being poorer compared to Tesco, which uses a uniform font size in its product listing for the name and quantity.

Also the increase/decrease quantity buttons next to items are very small on the Waitrose site which may cause problems for older or sight impaired users.

How big is your cupboard?

In the Waitrose structure, there are four main categories: ‘Fruit & Vegetables’, ‘Fridge’, ‘Freezer’ and everything else in ‘Cupboard’ which is broken down to further categories, the largest of which is the nebulously titled ‘Food’.

If you are going to use common household features as the basis of a site’s information architecture then you have to be very certain that they apply to the majority of people so it fits with their mental model.

I don’t know about you, but I keep quite a few types of fruit and veg in my fridge so these are not distinct categories to me and when I think of my kitchen cupboard I’m not thinking about shower gel, deodorant or loo roll.

The sub category ‘Food’ is misleading since this can apply as an overarching category to all the main headings.

On the other hand, Tesco displays more top level categories and also shows large fly-out menus on hover enabling users to scan categories and make a more precise selection.

All these factors made for a quite difficult navigation experience for the users we tested with on Waitrose. Having many food types lumped into ‘Cupboard’ and ‘Food’ means a humble sliced loaf is four clicks away as opposed to two on Tesco.

This clip shows someone struggling with this:


These broad categories on Waitrose make navigating between them more laborious than on Tesco. This clip shows a user in the bread section trying to navigate to the right category to add tuna.

The use of ‘Food’ as a subcategory also caused problems in using the breadcrumb trail.

One user used the breadcrumb trail to navigate to another section intending to find an item that was actually located in ‘Fridge’ but on seeing ‘Food’ (within the ‘Cupboard’ category) she assumed the item would be in there.

Narrowing large results sets is poorly supported

Within a Waitrose food category, there are no helpful sub-categories or other filtering options to help users make a quick choice.

Within the ‘Fish & Seafood’ section the only sub-categories presented are ‘Cooked Fish’, ‘Fish Service Counter’ and ‘Prepacked Fresh Fish’, where tuna steaks are located amongst fifty other items.

With only twelve results per page this makes for a lot of paging through, or ‘quite a hassle’ as one user put it. There's no reason why there can’t be different types of fish listed here.  

The equivalent page on Tesco has more categories up front such as ‘Pre-packed Salmon & Tuna’ and ‘Breaded Fish’ making the number of results easier to scan through and results lists can be expanded to view more per page.  

This clip shows the same problem in the Waitrose bread category.

How many peppers in a kilo?

Adding fruit or vegetable items is not as straightforward on Waitrose as on its competitor’s site.

When users eventually found red peppers (bizarrely located in the ‘Salads’ category) they found that they had to know the weight in kilograms of the number of peppers they wanted. Tesco enables the users to specify the number of items required.


All these issues led to users giving up on browse early on and relying on the search which thankfully gives good results.

However, the Tesco search goes one step further by allowing users to type in multiple items in a list format and bringing back results for each one. Our test users liked this very helpful feature which matches the real world experience well.

Tesco has given its users other useful tools to help users and create a more realistic experience. In items listed in search results there is a ‘View rest of shelf’ link so that if the user is close to finding an item they’re looking for they can view the rest of the items in that category.

Tesco also makes suggestions for products that go with an item chosen. Whilst this is clearly motivated by a business decision to upsell, users may find this helpful in some cases.

No Clubcard,  no shopping

More evidence of the hard-nosed commercial machinery at work behind Tesco is the fact that it does not appear to be possible to shop on the website without signing up for a Clubcard. 

This is frustrating for those users who do not want to have their details or shopping tracked.

Checking Out

Unlike Waitrose, Tesco does not stipulate a minimum order. This caused confusion to some users (myself included) who did not see the text next to the checkout button and wondered why the button was greyed out.

It may be better to leave this active and show a message on click rather than just rely on users reading the small text.


All of the issues found on the Waitrose site are preventable and it makes me wonder if their design team did employ any user centred design practices at all.

Some issues should never have made it to the wireframe stage. For example, creating an information architecture to match how their customers think only involves performing a simple card sorting exercise to create the most meaningful categories and labels.

Navigation problems and the more detailed design issues could easily have been ironed out with click-through prototypes. Perhaps the feedback got lost in corporate strategy and politics in which case I hope someone will tell the story in a few years’ time.

On a positive note for Waitrose, its customers are heavily invested in the brand and their complaints are loud and manifold because fundamentally they are loyal to the brand.

They want the customer experience they have previously enjoyed online and in the stores to continue. If Waitrose really is listening then the issues highlighted here and on the discussion boards can be overcome relatively easily.

Above all, I hope these issues are not simply viewed as people reacting to change. With a range of online shopping options just a website away and with Ocado selling the same goods, customers will get their message across one way or another. 


Published 13 April, 2011 by Kathryn McDonnell

Kathryn McDonell is a User Experience Consultant at WhatUsersDo.com and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (16)

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Great article and a really good analysis of the issues. I wonder though, if returning users would use categories as much or rather would use their regular order and supplement with searching items - perhaps they tested with the wrong audience.

Don't get me wrong I am totally agreeing with all of your points and it seems very strange to not have picked this up at wireframe/card sort stage.

over 7 years ago


Ian James

I agree, an accurate disection of the woeful Waitrose shopping experience for first time shoppers, but as Jamie suggested, regular customers have had the additional horrendous experience of using lists and previous orders. A comparison for this type of customer would highlight perhaps the worst feature of the Waitrose site when compared with Tesco or for that matter Ocado.

over 7 years ago


DoThe Needful

I'm not totally sure this example works - as you can apply the same argument to Amazon - when searching for a DVD of 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (good film btw) do you use the taxonomy to get to it? I doubt it.

over 7 years ago


ian James

How many times have you bought 80+ items at a time from Amazon? This is shopping for groceries not DVD's - a point Waitrose have obviously missed too!

over 7 years ago



I agreed with this article right up to the last part where Waitrose's customers are described as fundamentally loyal to the brand. That did used to be the case. However many of us who were loyal have become increasingly less so as we see the brand lose its way in its normal supermarket shopping.

Where we used to get integrity and reliability we now get misleading words (remember the 'free range' pigs which were nothing of the sort? the salmon shipped from Chile relabelled as "Scottish"? And today I've seen a notice at my local shop advertising their online service stating 'free delivery on all orders' which is utterly misleading as you have to place an order for over £50!). What Waitrose say can no longer be relied on to be fair and honest.

And all the special little specialist/luxury items which Waitrose stocked and no other supermarket did are being discontinued as 'slow moving'. As Waitrose reduce their stock lines to the same ones we see in every other supermarket why should we be 'loyal'?

I expect to see their trading figures show that they are losing customers' loyalty in much the same way that M&S lost their way a few years back. And a great shame it is too.

over 7 years ago


Mrs Wazbottle

I think the Waitrose site is a much cleaner design.

It's not necessary to register a clubcard to shop on Tesco.com.

over 7 years ago


sarah inman

Good article, and excellent comment form Jennifer, with whom I agree completely. How can it be that Waitrose got it so wrong? They had the enviable multi-search function on their old platform, called the Shopping Jotter, and it was widely used and valued, judging by the numerous calls for its return on their customer comment forum. A Waitrose customer services response on one of the earlier posts about Shopping Jotter indicated that there were no plans to include a multi-search function on the new site - big mistake.

over 7 years ago


media platforms

nice post,thanks for sharing with us,really a good presence of knowledge,an accurate disection of the woeful Waitrose shopping experience for first time shoppers, but as Jamie suggested, regular customers have had the additional horrendous experience of using lists and previous orders

over 7 years ago



OK here's one that everyone missed which i'd argue is a cardinal sin. note, i've never shopped at waitrose online.

1. i acutally tested it looking for bread, its pretty confusing.

more importantly -

2. i wanted to add to basket...

A. you have to register before you can add to basket...i don't know of any other online ecommerce site that demands that of you...nuts!

B. or you have to enter your postcode which i can appreciate given they can only deliver to certain locations...but here's the crazy bit, i live in NW6, NEAR a waitrose...yet they don't deliver to my area..i'm 10minutes down the road, why wouldn't they deliver?


over 7 years ago


Andy Shield

Thanks for putting this together. I'd love to know:

a) Whether they did a card sort during the IA (because it could've actually caused some of the issues with the taxonomy - for example if some bright spark said "why not base it on elements of my kitchen")
b) Whether Waitrose bought a pre-built solution and hacked away at it
c) How involved the various internal stakeholders were...

over 7 years ago


Verity Cork, Senior Web Editor at RNIB

RNIB's Web Access Consultancy worked very closely with Tesco to help them make their website accessible. I'd like to suggest it's also helped make it more usable for everyone.

over 7 years ago


Phil Allen, Director, Digital, Wealth & Investments at Lloyds Banking Group

For me, I can't see any evidence that Waitrose did any of the following:
- Competitor analysis
- IA research (including Card sorts, etc)
- Customer listening panels
- Lab based user testing
- Piloting

They did a lot (and lot!) of design work but I guess that's the old lipstick on a pig scenario, it's still a pig.

Whatever way you look at it, in 2011, they've missed a lot of really important, user centred, aspects to the redesign project which is now causing them a) expensive rework and b) bad PR.

This is a case study for your business case why you need to do things properly in digital, not just make it look pretty.

over 7 years ago



Complicated.. But design issues may arise time by time

about 7 years ago



Thanks for a really interesting article. It's great to see the user testing. I had to laugh when the guy said "oh my god, I've got to go through 40 products, this is going to be quite a hassle". Then he clicked a link and the page took ages to load.

Waitrose clearly haven't tested their use cases against the design. If you've got a long list of fish, you're definitely going to want to filter it by type. Surely, that's a no-brainer isn't it?

about 7 years ago


In the know

Shopping on the internet and expecting that your purchases WON'T be analysed? Naive.

You will be analysed in some way, at least by tracking you when you come back and buy again to the same delivery address and email, and by cross referencing postcode to ACORN or similar (and what payment card you used).

They all do it, all you can do is opt out of the junk (e)mail. Don't like it? Don't shop online.

All that the Tesco clubcard adds is:
Points reward (you've given them the data already by shopping online, you might as well get the money back)
Ability for Tesco to link purchases across channels (online-various sites, and in-store)

about 7 years ago


Mike Gorick

The internet shopping experience is completed with the delivery service. Normally very good with polite people. However fall into the area of complaint as I did when the driver put his van over the flower bed and damaged the containing border and things are not so bright it seems. It took me about two months to resolve the issue which was in fact very simple. The main problem was communications with staff passing the buck and appearing to try to fob me off. I tried to escalate the matter to Mark Price the MD but apparently he does not speak to customers. So I have to presume that either I am not important as a customer or that he thinks he is too important to talk to customers even when they have valuable information for him which will, I am sure, help Waitrose service delivery. So ok a mistake was made by the delivery driver, I have no problem with that but if the matter is not dealt with properly and efficiently it becomes a complaint and the complaint escalates through bad procedures and the inability to risk check that the matter is being processed effectively . So Mr Mark Price check out this complaint with your central transport Manager Jerry Ward and call me . He has my number .

about 6 years ago

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