One more thought on Fresh & Easy

April 02, 2013

What went wrong with Fresh & Easy?

April 17th seems to be the big day that the retail food world has been waiting for. It might well be the day that we will discover the future for Fresh & Easy. Tesco’s CEO, Philip Clarke is on the way to the US for “talks,” and he is expected to share the chain’s future as part of Tesco’s annual report on that third Wednesday later this month.

Millions of words have been written over the past few years about Fresh & Easy, and most have been negative from day one. We at The Lempert Report felt at the onset that Fresh & Easy was in fact a good concept and would succeed; obviously we were wrong. Many retail pundits have placed blame on the locations, the advertising plan (or lack of), the prepared foods recipes, the individually plastic wrapped produce, the bare bone interiors or lack of cashiers – or all of the above. At this point in time none of these seem to matter.

It was time to revisit a Fresh & Easy market, to see first hand just how badly the store was doing. This store, in Palm Desert, California is in a rather bland strip mall and actually shares the parking lot with a Vons at one end. 

Surprisingly the store was jammed with shoppers. Shoppers of all kinds. Singles and families, Anglos and Mexican, young and old, and assuming by the way they were dressed, rich and poor.

The produce wall was fully stocked and looked terrific. The wine offerings were as always impressive both in selection and price. The prepared foods items that used to be displayed in open faced refrigerated cases were now behind glass doors looking more like a frozen food case than one for fresh foods. The aisles were clean, shelves well stocked and this store had more staff on the floor than I had seen before in any Fresh & Easy. I counted no less than nine store associates stocking shelves and helping customers. Most customers had almost full, to full, shopping carts. I only saw one woman who carried a hand basket with a few items.

So once again we had to wonder, what went wrong?

The store doesn’t seem to have a heart and soul.  Yes, the previous leaders of the chain touted how they “lived” with consumers, set up a full-sized store in a hidden warehouse to learn all about the shoppers they were designing a new format to serve; but the store lacks the empathy and emotion of a Trader Joe’s, Wegman’s or Publix. Or even the nearby Vons. The learnings obviously didn’t translate very well.

In fact, our checkout experience proved the point. While self-scan is commonplace, some of the screen cues were annoying. Buying four gallons of distilled water prompted four pop ups that required our approval to keep them in the cart versus being bagged; and then triggered another approval needed from an associate to continue the checkout. Scanning a case of bottled water produced the same result. The store associate obviously annoyed by our purchases needing their approval then suggested that they could scan the rest of the basket full of foods better than could we. It was not an offer of customer service, but rather one to avoid their further annoyance.

Walking to the parking lot we had to wonder if perhaps it is not the Fresh & Easy concept that isn’t working, but rather the blame rests with the people who were managing the execution. Whether it be Walmart, Aldi or another group who picks up the broken pieces it will be interesting to watch how this concept evolves and becomes successful.