As I’m reporting from Las Vegas I’d better put my cards on the table at the outset and say I’m not Tesco’s biggest fan – and I say that as both someone who has written for Convenience Store magazine for many years and has seen how the grocery giant has trampled on the independents, and as a consumer. That said, I was quite excited to see Tesco’s take on a stateside c-store. Of course, I’d read all the stories about the problems the company had experienced but there’s nothing like a visit to a store to see it first-hand.

The Fresh & Easy Neighbourhood Market I visited is at Warm Springs & Eastern near the airport in Las Vegas. It’s located in a ‘strip mall’ – a bigger version of a parade of shops – and its neighbours include Tuesday Morning (a TK Maxx-style outlet), a pizza place and a ballroom dancing studio. But the big and bright Fresh & Easy fascia is hard to miss.

As soon as I entered the store an assistant pounced on me – whether because customers were scarce or she was just overdoing the greeting I don’t know. She was eager to ask me whether I had brought my coupons with me. When I told her I was from ‘outta town’ she explained the system, which seemed extremely generous: customers who spend $20 get a $5 voucher to redeem on their next visit. The first aisle I visited was brimming with fresh fruit and veg and it all looked really good. At the end was a sandwich and sushi fridge which also contained some lovely juices and smoothies (I know because I tried one). The second aisle was full of fresh meat and that too looked great – with some good cuts of meat.

The manager, Jessie, says the first two aisles are the ‘most shopped’ within the store. According to him, Fresh & Easy is all about low prices and fresh foods: “It’s a discounter with class, our closest competitors are Trader Joes and Wholefoods.”

At the end of the fresh produce and fresh meat aisle is The Kitchen Table – a purpose-built sampling area complete with microwave that Jessie says operates for 10 hours a day. I tried the own-label chicken & shrimp Pad Thai and it was surprisingly good. I then went to have a look at the other ready meals. Again I was pleasantly surprised. The packaging is very basic – no sleeves with glossy photos of the dish – instead a plastic container with a clear lid enabling you to see the product clearly and easily.

Much is made of the freshness of the products and Jessie says some things, such as grapes, get from farm to shelf within 24 hours. Point-of-sale material includes a sign saying ‘We date code our pastries so you know you’ll be eating them at their best’. The first two aisles are definitely the best bits of the store. Elsewhere I saw some odd merchandising going on – pasta sauces in the same aisle as confectionery, for example.

The store itself is kitted out like a warehouse with a high ceiling and open pipework, and the aisles are nice and wide. The checkouts are self-service and surprisingly they worked first time – I’ve tried several in the UK and have always had problems with them. And the friendly lady from the entrance was there to help anyone with problems. She described them as ‘assisted checkouts’ and assured me that staff are always on hand to help anyone who needs it.

I must say that I did like the store, specifically the fresh food bits, but I found the layout of other areas puzzling. In addition, there was no clever merchandising to entice you to make any impulse purchases. Even though I visited at 11.30am on a Friday, a time when a typical UK c-store would be full of people, this Fresh & Easy outlet was practically empty. Understandably, this didn’t give me a great deal of confidence in the venture. So let’s just say I wouldn’t bet on it.

Breaking in the States
It’s difficult breaking into the US market – just ask Oasis or Robbie Williams, who at the height of their respective fame couldn’t do it. And with Fresh & Easy Tesco has found it tough too. The UK grocery giant has been plagued with problems since it launched in the US, one of the biggest being the fact that it won’t hold talks with the unions over pay and other workers’ rights. Other problems include reports of poor sales, and earlier this year the chain took a three-month break from store openings ‘to smooth out wrinkles’. These wrinkles apparently included ranging, with a need for a more flexible approach to suit different consumers. There has also been criticism of store design, but a recent report in The Daily Telegraph says new stores will now include ‘local and community design features’. However, it seems Wal-Mart has been keeping an eye on things as it has revealed plans to open Marketside stores, described as ‘the neighbour-hood market for busy people with a taste for fresh and delicious food’. Sound familiar?
Fresh & Easy facts
● On July 9, Fresh & Easy opened its 63rd store (in north Las Vegas) ● Stores operate in Arizona, California and Nevada ● The company donates $1,000 to the neighbourhood every time it opens a store; customers say where they’d like the money to go via the website (www.freshandeasy.com) ● Stores are approximately 10,000sq ft ● Each store employs 20–30 people ● Stores try to source local food, for example 60% of the range is from California ● Stores do not sell tobacco products
Shopper views
Mayo: “I love the people; they’re so friendly. And I love the coupons. I always spend $20 to get the $5 coupon and I look for mark-downs. Today I spent $50 but that did include wine. This store is not the nearest to my home but I use it the most.” Dominique: “It’s easy to shop here and much less stressful than Wal-mart. It’s small and accessible and the people are nice. Today I spent $24 on lunch for two.” Gilbert: “It’s convenient for me to come here so I visit about twice a week. I love the fresh foods and there’s plenty of organic stuff. Prices are good, especially on wine. Today I bought juice and a sandwich.”

Topics