Big crowds greet Tesco debut in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES Tesco wanted to make a good impression with its Nov. 8 Fresh & Easy debut in Los Angeles—a city where image is everything—and it did just that with a huge crowd jamming the aisles on opening day. Company officials reported similar turnouts at five other grand openings in Southern California and acknowledged customer response exceeded expectations.

More than one hundred people stood in line waiting to get into the Los Angeles store, with employees letting customers in as others left. And what they saw inside was a Tesco’s new hybrid combining elements of Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and 7-Eleven with some borrowings from its stores in Europe.

The basic concept of Fresh & Easy is a convenient shopping experience with an emphasis on healthy food and prepared meals from its Fresh & Easy private label. During a brief tour of the crowded store, Uwins explained that 50 percent of its food offerings are from its private label and that everything is created, cooked and packaged at its own state-of-the art “kitchen” in Southern California, including all of its prepared meals.

“We expected pre-prepared meals to be a massive hit here in the U.S.,” said Simon Uwins, Tesco’s chief marketing officer. “And so far, judging from the gaps we see in our refrigerated cases, they’re being cleared out rather fast.”

Several things set Fresh & Easy apart from other grocery retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, the two it resembles the most. As Uwins mentioned, its Fresh & Easy private label has a 50 percent penetration rate and is represented in nearly every major food category including produce, meat, prepared meals, juice, coffee and mixed nuts.

And that reliance on private label allows it to offer some very competitive prices. Overall, Tesco says its prices are well below its main rivals at standard supermarkets. “We estimate our prices are about 20 percent lower than most supermarkets in the area,” said Uwins.

Its selection general merchandise, health and beauty and over-the-counter medications is small supermarket standards and runs more along the lines of a convenience store, though with a broader assortment. Basics like paper towels, diapers and pet food are stocked in a single aisle and its HBC and OTC products are located on one long shelf toward the back of the store capped with a section for greeting cards and magazines.

The rather small selection—and the complete lack of private label products—shows Fresh & Easy is primarily about the food, though that could change. “There are no private label products outside of food right now but that’s not to say that won’t change,” said Uwins.

The in-store signage is also unique and stamps Fresh & Easy as an organic and eco-friendly retailer, a good image for Southern California. Nearly every green, cardboard endcap features a message about its products including “all our bagged coffee is certified organic” and “our desserts contain 0 percent trans fats.” LED lighting is also used in the store, something else pointed out in its signs. The store doesn’t sell cigarettes but do carry a large selection of wine along with liquor and beer.

The checkout system is completely automated with 100 percent assisted self-checkout. Five checkout stands are small and designed for 15 items or less and the rest are a bit larger with scanners and self-pay systems (though there were plenty of employees nearby to help out people not familiar with the concept).

As expected, Tesco had some detractors at its grand openings in the form of labor unions and neighborhood groups. The Carpenters Local 1506 picketed in front of the Los Angeles store and handed out fliers claiming that a group hired by Tesco to help build its stores “does not meet area labor standards, including paying for health care and pension for all its employees on all projects.”

Tesco has a second wave of five openings planned for Las Vegas on Nov. 14 and plans to have stores open in the San Diego market in late November and Phoenix in early December. It expects to have 50 stores operating in California, Nevada and Arizona by next February.

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