Tesco launches surprise soft opening

HEMET, Calif. Tesco opened its first Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in the U.S. ahead of schedule with a soft opening of its store in Hemet, Calif., a small town 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles. And a tour of the store on Nov. 5 showed Tesco has developed an innovative grocery store hybrid with European flair.

The first two aisles near the entrance reflect the Fresh & Easy name, with refrigerated cases stocked with prepared meals, fresh sandwiches and drinks. The aisles themselves are sawed-off versions of a typical supermarket with a fairly large selection of fresh produce in the first aisle and fresh meats, poultry and seafood in the second. A stand with free food samples was at the back of the first aisle.

While the Fresh & Easy format doesn’t feature a pharmacy, it does carry a fairly large selection of health and beauty and OTC products. The entire section takes up one long shelf toward the back of the store fronted by a small section with greeting cards and magazines. The section carries a standard mix of essentials like shampoo, skin care products and analgesics from major vendors.

The general merchandise section is fairly small, with products found in a typical convenience store including paper towers, diapers, light bulbs and pet food. And while Fresh & Easy puts a big emphasis on natural and organic foods, it carries very few natural products in HBC and general merchandise.

Several things set Fresh & Easy apart from other grocery retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, the two it resembles the most. Topping the list is a high percentage of its Fresh & Easy private label in the product mix, which is probably close to 50%. The house brand is represented in nearly every major food category including produce, meat, prepared meals, juice, coffee and mixed nuts.

And that reliance on a private label allows it to offer some very competitive prices. A few examples include a 25-ounce beef lasagna dinner for $3.79, a wide array of fresh sandwiches priced under $4 and a half-gallon of milk for $1.98. And some of the pricing gives a nod to one of its top rivals with bananas priced at 18-cents each, one penny below the 19-cent bananas sold at Trader Joe’s.

The aisles feature European-style merchandising with products shelved in their original cardboard containers, a gimmick that gives the store a distinctive look and makes restocking shelves easier. High, open ceilings also make the store appear larger than its 10,000-square-foot base.

The 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% trans-fats.” And Fresh & Easy doesn’t sell cigarettes, though it does carry a large selection of wine along with liquor and beer.

The checkout system is completely automated with 100% self-checkout. Five checkout stands are small and designed for 15 items or less and the rest are standard conveyor belts with scanners and self-pay systems (though there were plenty of employees nearby to help out people unfamiliar with the concept).

As far as feedback, most of the talk overheard in the store was positive. It included observations from regular customers (pleased with low prices) along with vendors, retailers and reporters walking the store and taking notes.