Published on: January 22, 2008by Michael Sansolo
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Then again, maybe you can’t.
Last week I had my first opportunity to visit the new Tesco Fresh & Easy format in Arizona. Actually it was two opportunities at two different stores and the verdict is simple. Fresh & Easy is lousy; it’s colorless and seems to be completely misaimed. And it may just work.
That’s a little contradictory, I know, but these days what isn’t? Yet in this case, the details will help.
First, the pre-visit. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had discussions with numerous friends in the F&E marketplace and I’ve heard all manner of reviews. Some reported the stores doing well, while others saw a disaster. Some talked of it being the transformational shopping experience Tesco not only promised, but has delivered in the United Kingdom. Others said it looked like just one more example of a European company coming to the US and finding out that they knew nothing about America.
Upon visiting my first F&E, I would have totally signed up with the negative opinions except that I thought they were too kind. The store I visited looked lifeless, boring, confusing and unappetizing. The only saving grace seemed to be that there were so few shoppers in the store to actually notice the retail disaster unfolding around them.
Tesco, it seemed, had blown it. Actually, it was me who blew it.
Two days later I visited a second Fresh & Easy in a very different neighborhood and the picture could not have been more different. While not exactly jammed with shoppers, the traffic was strong and steady and the shoppers were doing exactly what Tesco no doubt dreamed of originally. All were filling shopping carts with a mix of prepared food items with staples.
One woman I spoke with said F&E has altered her mealtime preparation as she loaded up on a three different prepared dinners. (Lasagna was her favorite.) When I asked her about some pre-packed lunch snack packs filled with carrots, fruit, cheese and juice she examined it for one second and proceeded to place four in her cart. The snack packs, she said, are exactly the kind of healthy solution she seeks for her kids.
She wasn’t alone. Another women told me the pre-pack produce - a big negative in the eyes of many retailers - was a great idea and looked terrific. Fresh & Easy may not be a store for foodies, but many shoppers aren’t in that category. For today’s increasingly cooking-illiterate shoppers, the notion of picking every apple or pear might be less attractive than we all think.
And on top of those prepared options, shoppers were buying milk, detergent, wine and basically all the kinds of products that supermarkets in Phoenix will hate to surrender. As a friend of mine in Phoenix said, it’s hard for him to pass by Fresh & Easy these days unless a shopping trip demands something that the store simply doesn’t stock. Most interestingly of all, Fresh & Easy - like Costco before it - seems capable of drawing a highly affluent shopper to its low service, Spartan environment. High-end European cars dominated the parking lot.
Fresh & Easy would hardly be the first value format to find a warm reception among shoppers who can afford better and a soft economy might only help.
Of course, none of this means much at all. That I saw a terrible store in a low-income area and a good one in an affluent community isn’t any guarantee of future direction, success or failure. What’s clear is Fresh & Easy is good enough that it won’t be easily dismissed or eliminated.
And likely, we see an even bigger battle when version 2.0 or 3.0 is being rolled out in the market place. Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com