Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Fresh & Easy"? Tesco stales on U.S. Market, will close stores. Or, will Trader Joe's acquire them?

About five years ago, Tesco, the U.K.'s largest grocery chain, started opening Fresh & Easy stores in California. When the first stores were opened, the chain most grocery-industry observers compared it to was, in fact, Trader Joe's.

It was sure not a Trader Joe's-style success with customers. After an investment of over $2 billion, and after opening nearly 200 outlets in California, Arizona, and Nevada, it now seems as if Tesco is poised to sell off the chain or -- if it fails to find a buyer -- just shut it down.

The Fresh & Easy concept has not, obviously, attracted the business or generated the profit Tesco hoped for. That said, it's developed a few fans, and at least a few commentators have wondered out loud whether Trader Joe's is interested in buying it up.

I have no way of knowing whether Trader Joe's is seriously considering a bid for Fresh & Easy -- the famously secretive TJ's management (maybe I should call them the 'Admirals' in Monrovia, in keeping with the 'crew member', 'Captain' nautical theme) isn't talking.

What's interesting to me is, now that Tesco's stale on Fresh & Easy, people in the business are saying, "Of course it failed. The 10,000 square foot stores were too small; Americans are used to shopping in huge supermarkets. The idiosyncratic mix of own-brand products included many unfamiliar items customers here had never seen before. And there were basic, staple items that the store didn't carry at all, so a harried suburban mom could not just run into one store and do all her shopping."

All of those criticisms could, in fact, be leveled at Trader Joe's, but those problems have certainly not hurt Trader Joe's. In fact, Trader Joe's customers would often cite the small store footprint and unique Trader Joe's-brand items as strengths, not weaknesses.

While it's definitely true that the Fresh & Easy product mix and concept should probably be tweaked by any company that buys it up -- that's if any company buys it up -- I have to wonder how the chain would have fared if it had adopted one more Trader Joe's trait... friendly, decently paid and treated staff who are empowered to do whatever it takes to make a customer's day.

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