Guess who’s in the neighborhood

Fresh & Easy branding

My local Fresh & Easy signage - better than Tesco's rather conventional UK image

The words ‘Tesco’ and ‘failure’ are not generally synonymous with one another. In fact, Tesco is one of Britain’s great success stories. Being rather guarded about great, runaway success, many Brits don’t like Tesco and there have been plenty of people willing to lump them into a category which I will call ‘ the great evil spawned by unbridled capitalism’.

A little aside for my friends in the United States: Tesco is to supermarkets what Starbucks is to coffee. Yes, there is a Tesco on just about every corner in London and further afield, in other UK towns and cities. It has led to people bemoaning the death of the traditional high street shops such as the butcher, the fishmonger, the bakery and maybe even the pharmacy. So great is their buying power that they can negotiate better rates than their small competitors, and many people no longer have the time to traipse from one place to another to do their weekly food shopping.

Like many companies with a huge financial portfolio, Tesco wants to expand. They are not content to sit idly on their profits in the UK – profits so big that they could probably single-handedly solve the Greek debt crisis – and so have their eyes on the greatest consumer prize in the world, the United States. They opened a chain of small, neighborhood supermarkets called Fresh and Easy in 2007 and, guess what, there is one literally 10 minutes from where I live in Spring Valley. Because you drive everywhere around here, I have never actually passed my local Fresh and Easy on foot, but I have heard plenty about it from my mother, who tells me: ‘I think you will like it. It’s really cute.’

I decide to check out this ‘cute’ British outpost in what is a bizarre, down-at-heel location near a freeway. I am pleasantly surprised despite the surroundings. While American supermarkets can be intimidatingly huge upon entering, this feels more like what I’m used to from my days in London. Had I been talking about clothes, I would venture to say that this feels more like a boutique than a department store. It also feels like a hybrid of M&S and Tesco, but the prices are reasonable. I negotiate the small isles with a tiny shopping basket, not a massive trolley, and feel like I could almost be back in Crouch End with other middle-class metro shoppers.

Some of Fresh & Easy’s neighbors
Spring Valley businesses

Fancy a hamburger?

Spring Valley businesses

Or what about some chicken?

Spring Valley businesses
A great American car wash

The shopping experience

Even the tills are similar. You have to scan the items yourself – a concept which must be totally alien to most Americans – and then put them into bags. I don’t think I’ve ever had to bag my groceries in America before. There is always some spotty teenager to do it, and all the big American supermarkets provide a full check-out service.

Of course, I like this supermarket concept because it’s what I have got used to and I will be going back, but I take it that Fresh and Easy has not had an ‘easy’ time of it, as the name might suggest.

According to a Guardian article from August this year, the chain in the United States lost 186m pounds last year. In April the FT reported that Tesco has sunk 800m pounds into the venture and has not broken even – it was expected to break even in 2010, but this has been postponed to 2012-2013. This has led Tesco to tweak the concept and instead focus on opening ‘express’ stores with in-store bakeries and fresh coffee – the first of these opened in Los Angeles, on La Cienega Blvd, this week.

Fresh & Easy coupons

You can't get into America and not offer coupons

I hope Fresh and Easy makes it. The Fresh and Easy in my neighborhood was previously a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), a bureaucratic monstrosity of a place that would suck hours from your life if you were unfortunate enough to have to renew your driver’s license there. And because the neighborhood is (cough) a bit shabby, I suspect the large building will lie neglected and abandoned for a long time if Fresh and Easy shuts. Then again, maybe this could pave the way for a Starbucks coffeeshop with a huge drive-thru for all the people getting on the freeway.

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