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Tesco Observations From A Retail Pro

Our piece, Trip To Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Store Reveals The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, brought a response from one of America’s premier experts on produce retailing:

I read with interest your article on your Fresh & Easy store visit. I have been monitoring that Eagle Rock store and several other Fresh & Easy locations on a weekly basis. This includes actually purchasing product to test systems and sample product.

I know you choose to be cautious with what you say based on a one-time visit, so let me help you out with your observations. I’ve placed your comments in yellow highlights below my own observations:

The Good:

You are right on with the comments on the staff.

Plenty of staff… all with excellent attitudes, very anxious to help. Although the store was rather empty, thus giving the staff plenty of time to help, they were asking customers, “Do you want me to show you how to work the self-checkout or do you want me to do it for you?” Question: Staff looked heavy for the volume of business being done. Will staff hours be cut and the friendly staff be less so?

That is one of the Good Items that I also have on my list.

A number of very interesting products; for example, a series of items being positioned to compete with Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables — but with healthier food and at a bit higher price point.

Packaging may give the impression of safer, but for a company that is environmentally and socially very responsible, this is significantly over-packaging. Both a tray and a bag on some items.

The fact that almost every produce item was in a clamshell, bag or wrapped made us feel that the product was safer — since it couldn’t easily be touched by store employees or fellow customers.

On comparing Fresh & Easy with Trader Joe’s, I give Fresh & Easy higher grades on bakery, prepared foods and fresh meat. However, that is the only three that I favor Fresh & Easy on as Trader Joe’s has a better fresh feel, better produce and a lot more organic items, better floral, better wine, better cheeses and better checkout.

The Trader Joes’s sampling is far superior on the selection of products to be sampled. At Fresh & Easy they sample their private label cookies, cheese, etc. there is no uniqueness to these products. Trader Joes’s samples their own soups, salads, prepared foods, and frozen foods.

Excellent range of baked goods. Many interesting sauces and whatnot to try — in that sense reminded us of Trader Joe’s…

Nice lady sampling the house brand of tiramisu, chocolate chip cookies, stuffed olives and a few other grocery items.

The sampling program was limited and odd. Although the sampling lady explained that the purpose was to reassure us of the taste of the Fresh & Easy branded items, we didn’t feel we needed a sample of, say, a jarred stuffed olive. We would have liked to sample some of the prepared foods and the meat and poultry items that are being sold pre-basted. We are OK with gambling with a stuffed olives, but if we are having a dinner party and are thinking of serving the nice looking chicken in their special sauce, we would like to taste that first.

No doubt the store is set for labor efficiencies, but it also tends to be very sterile.

The Spartan décor and fact that everything was displayed in a shipper gave it a warehouse feel and engendered the hope we would be getting a good deal.

Plenty of parking because there is no one in the stores!

Plenty of parking.

The Bad:

The most customers I have counted in the stores at any one time is 8.

The store was dead; there were more employees than customers when we were there.

Out-of-stocks have been haunting them. Executives at the company say they are plagued with dumping raw product, warehouse mis-picks, poor store ordering, and IT problems. Executives do claim that they are over projection on sales. If true, they must have budgeted the store to open at a low sales level and grow from there.

There is an obvious problem in all the fresh foods areas with out-of-stocks. For example, no chicken tenders in the meat and poultry department, no sliced roast beef in the self-serve deli. You could get rice but they were out of the refried beans in the prepared foods section. In produce, they were out of bagged spinach and strawberries. In Grab-and-Go, they were out of tuna salad sandwiches.

Bananas are the only item without a pull date on it, and the store personnel do not know when to pull them.

Bananas, priced oddly at 18 cents per banana, were one of the few produce items stocked to the brim. Lots of overripe bananas — Bonita brand — plus newer bananas. Impression is the fruit hasn’t been selling and the staff doesn’t know how to properly cull the bananas.

It looks like they are told to turn the RPC over when out and hold the spot for the next day. This may be so they do not lose their schematic.

When an item was still in stock, the display was often half empty, so the consumer would see several big black tubs with a lonely bag of tangerines in each one.

It seems as if they are allowing store-level staff zero flexibility on merchandising. When the store is out of stock, nobody seems to be thinking in terms of filling up the space with anything else. If the planogram says two feet for bagged spinach and the store is out, they just keep an empty shelf there with the spinach sign.

I have been buying the Fresh & Easy private label products and find them to be 80% good or outstanding. Their frozen pizza is better than anyone else’s; some of their sandwiches are excellent but some are soggy.

We found the taste of the private label products being sampled to be mediocre. The tiramisu and the chocolate chip cookie were fine — but just fine. Nothing to make us feel we must shop at Fresh & Easy to get these great items.

Everyone has the same impression [about the appearance of the stores].

We found the overall appearance of the store dour and cold. It didn’t really make us happy to be there. Costco is institutional looking too, but somehow the buzz, the serendipitous appearance of new products, the demos and sampling, all make Costco feel much more fun.

They said they would stock the top 200 produce items but about 20 of the 155 items that they stock would not be in anyone’s top 200.

Fresh & Easy has a lot more commodities than Trader Joe’s, but Trader Joe’s is deeper in the right commodities.

Example — Fresh & Easy has 4 apples — Trader Joe’s has 10 (both conventional and organic), Fresh & Easy has 4 tomatoes — Trader Joe’s has 12 (both conventional and organic), Fresh & Easy has 8 value-added salads — Trader Joe’s has 28, and Fresh & Easy has 4 mushrooms — Trader Joe’s has 6.

Of the 8 valued-added salads, 2 are to the tastes of the British as they are basically a watercress salad. None of the U.S.-based value-added companies offer even one watercress salad, nor do they use watercress as an ingredient.

Fresh & Easy has a lot of Hispanic items in all the stores I am monitoring, yet Eagle Rock would be the only store with 25%+ Hispanic population. They stock prickly pears (wrong variety — white versus red), jalapenos, tomatillos, poblano, anaheim, limes, mangos, cactus leaves and jicama. However, all of these items are packaged in too small of a quantity for a Hispanic household. Trader Joe’s doesn’t stock any of these items.

The produce assortment left us having to go elsewhere. For example, the kids love Grapple apples — Fresh & Easy didn’t have them. We have another trip to make.

The Ugly:

I have tried some of the prepared items and they certainly are fairly priced. Some were good and some were really bad.

Many of the prepared items simply looked horrible. This is because curry-like items have flipped over and smeared all over the top of the plastic prepared food packages. Although we appreciate the desire to let shoppers see the food, if Fresh & Easy doesn’t have a solution to this problem, it should design a sleeve to put over the items so consumers are spared unattractive views.

I would have included as big negatives the fact that Fresh & Easy is 100% self checkout, will not take checks, will not accept manufacturers’ coupons, and will not accept American Express.

As you would expect, in order to make a real estate impact Tesco took every dark site available. Many of these sites are dark because someone else could not operate them profitably. No matter what the square footage of the site is, Fresh & Easy only takes 10,000 sq. ft. plus backroom and sub-leases the rest. In the stores that I have visited, they have been unsuccessful in leasing out this space so they are paying rent on space they are not using.

Fresh & Easy executives claim to be 20% lower in price than Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs. I did a produce price check with the following results. If I bought one package of everything stocked in a Fresh & Easy and bought the same amount in a Pavilions (Vons upscale store), I would have spent $114.59 at Fresh & Easy and $119.17 at the Pavilions for a difference of 5%.

Naturally some of the Pavilions items were on the chain’s ad for the week, but if you are an Every Day Low Price (EDLP) retailer, you should be able to be cheaper.

Fresh & Easy has a section called “Fresh Ideas” at the end of the left side of the produce department. This is an area to do some price promotion or highlight unique items. However, thus far they have displayed the following: 2-pack prickly pears, 3-pack persimmons, 2-pack comice pears, 4-pack gala apples, 4-pack red Anjou pears, 2 orange and 2 yellow tomatoes on a vine.

I have talked to a couple of their “Category Champions,” and they say the produce is doing about 18-20% of the stores’ business. From my observations I would agree with that. They are giving the out-of-code produce to a local food bank and the out-of-code flowers away to their customers.

The stores don’t appear to be doing any business, and I would guess they are under $100,000 per week.

Fresh & Easy executives say they only need $15-25 per sq. ft. or $150 to $250,000 per store per week. This is low but if you take that $150,000 and multiply that by 5 for a 50,000 sq ft store, that would be a $750,000 a week and every chain would love to have that as their low end sales. After they get the bugs out, I would guess they would operate the stores with a very low payroll (non-union) with little shrink. In the produce area you could buy everything on display for probably $1,500.

Many thanks to our correspondent for his tour d’force. We find in visiting stores that many attributes have a flip side. For example, Mrs. Pundit said she thought the Fresh & Easy store we visited to be the cleanest food market she had ever been in, including the ladies room. Some of that may be a consequence of everything coming in packaged, but a lot of it may be that the customer count is so low, things aren’t getting soiled.

As we have reflected on our visit, we think Tesco is trying hard to avoid Wal-Mart’s store-level execution issues. By keeping everything in a package with a pull-by date, by declaring that they would rather have unused sales space than mess up the schematic, by eliminating service in deli, bakery and seafood, the perishables operation at Fresh & Easy is designed to run smoothly even if operated by employees completely ignorant of fresh food and floral. In fact, the one time the system breaks this rule — bananas have no pull-by date — the result is a disaster because nobody at store level knows anything about produce.

Ironically, however, unlike Wal-Mart, the issues in perishables at Fresh & Easy — particularly the out-of-stocks — stem from headquarters decisions, not store level.

To us several points resonate from this letter and reflections after our visit:

1) Pricing is going to be a problem. The ongoing PRODUCE BUSINESS Wal-Mart Pricing Report typically finds that supermarket chains are 20% over Wal-Mart on prices. So a pledge to beat supermarkets by around 20% is a pledge to get into Wal-Mart’s pricing levels — and we simply didn’t see that as our correspondent did not. Add to this pricing level that we can’t use manufacturer’s coupons or get 2% cash back with our AMEX Plum Card and there is no bargain here.

2) Fresh & Easy has been pushing itself as the socially responsible store; it is trying hard to attract consumers who value the fact that it put solar panels on the roof of its distribution center. Yet covering every fruit and vegetable in plastic is certain to offend the sensibilities of the exact same people. There is a real contradiction here.

3) In order for private label to be the draw Fresh & Easy needs it to be, it has to not only be great product but great on the right items. Trader Joe’s has strength here because of its more gourmet approach. The people who will go out of their way to buy a special sauce or dressing are often “foodies” — people who care deeply about food. It is unclear that superior frozen pizza will drive the same form of customer loyalty that Trader Joe’s enjoys.

4) The whole concept depends on maintaining an advantage on labor costs over competitors from local supermarkets. In non-union areas, this will be difficult to achieve, and even in union areas one can expect Tesco to be attacked for pay policies incompatible with its claims to social responsibility.

5) There is a lot of learning for Tesco to do in terms of assortment and out-of-stocks, but we assume they will eventually get that right.

6) We would dismiss any meaning behind the claims of the stores out-performing sales projections, even if true. This project is the baby of Tesco’s CEO, so there was no need to promise aggressively to get him to sign off. Every incentive was to lowball expectations so that Tesco could proclaim to the financial community that it is operating above expectations.

7) Real estate often is the Achilles heel of retailers that seek to grow rapidly and it just might kill this concept. As we wrote back in August of 2006:

… although Tesco hasn’t disclosed the locations it has leased, if it is really true that they are going to open 400 stores in two years, it is highly likely that they will wind up with a lot of sub-optimal real estate.

Not enough new centers are built or vacancies occur to pick up all prime locations within range of one distribution center. And moving into existing centers involves complicated negotiations with existing tenants.

In fact, local retailers regularly wait years, sometimes decades, while romancing landlords and tenants to get prime space. It is just almost impossible to get hundreds of prime spots in a short order.

These are “B” sites at best and many will probably fail.

8) Our impression and reports from others are that Fresh & Easy must be experiencing phenomenal shrink levels. A simple look at the pull-by dates indicates an awful lot of product is being pulled.

9) The sheer volume of stores Tesco plans to open will create a challenge for other operators even if Fresh & Easy is not successful. Two hundred stores at even $100,000 a week is a big loser for Tesco but, still, it’s over a billion a year from other food retailers.

10) The meaning of convenience is in flux. But we didn’t find enough of a product range, particularly branded items, to allow Tesco to be our only grocery store. So to us it felt like one more trip we didn’t need. We didn’t find drive-through windows or curbside pickup or anything that would make it convenient for us. Different strokes for different folks, of course, but not the kind of clear win they were surely hoping for.

Several other retailers are going to be testing small footprint concepts — and they should. The question may be why Tesco rolled out with this little box in dour gray without building a couple of prototypes? Perhaps something will click and it will all work or, perhaps, consumers will reject the concept as too big and lacking the product mix of an American convenience store, yet too small and lacking the product variety of an American supermarket.

We think the intention to roll out so many stores at once indicates weakness in a concept. It means Tesco must have felt everything it was doing could be easily copied. Yet if it doesn’t get the sales numbers up, it is not clear that anyone is going to try to copy them.

Many thanks to our correspondent for his thoughtful and well researched letter.

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