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Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this special MorningNewsBeat Radio report from California about the opening of Tesco’s Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets is brought to you by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

Finally. They’e open.

After what seems like decades of anticipation but only really has been less than two years since its initial announcement, Tesco – the dominant retailer in the UK and the third largest grocery retailer in the world, has at long last opened its first stores here in the US. And I thought that if they’re going to go to all this trouble to travel six thousand miles from home to open a new chain of food stores, the least I could do is travel three thousand miles to the small city of Hemet, California, to see what they’re up to.

Let me answer the essential question first: If they opened a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market near me, would I shop there?

The answer is this: I don't know. But I certainly would give Fresh & Easy every opportunity to earn my business, mostly because the offering is just so different from those of most traditional supermarkets. I have to be honest – I felt a little out of place walking the store an hour or so ago, because except for the staff, I seemed to be the youngest person there – it was as if a senior citizens’ home had dropped off a busload of residents out front. But it was a Thursday morning, and most people are at work…so that probably has more to do with time of day than anything else.

You walk in, and one of the first things that strikes you is the general sparseness of the facilities. It isn’t stark or unattractive, but it is utilitarian at almost every turn, much more so than the Tesco Express or Tesco Metro stores I’ve visited in the UK. Which I think is the point.

When Fresh & Easy merchandises fresh produce, it is almost all pre-wrapped, except for the bananas and a few melons, in a style that is reminiscent of what Tesco has done in the UK. The prepared meals – whether sandwiches or ready-to-heat burritos and soups – all come in clear plastic packaging with a simple declarative label – this is a Fresh & Easy product, not available anywhere else. The packaged grocery comes in cut cases, so that replenishing stock is simple, and the low cost image is reinforced in the same way that a membership club does it….though the sizes tend to be medium – not as small as in a c-store, and not as big as in a club.

The place is loaded with help, which probably is an opening week gambit as opposed to how it’ll be staffed a few months from now, and the folks working there are engaging and helpful. There’s lots of sampling…but the front end consists of nine self-checkout lanes. One of the points I’ve long made here on MorningNewsBeat is that if you aren’t going to have people at the front end, you'd better have them in the aisles interacting with shoppers…and that’s exactly what Fresh & Easy is doing.

The store is roughly 50 percent private label, with national brands sprinkled about where they will offer credibility – like in cookies and cereal. But mark my words – if Fresh & Easy pans out and is as successful as Tesco wants it to be, you’ll see a diminishing selection of national brands as Fresh & Easy develops loyalty and affinity for its own-label products.

In fact, that’s my sense of the whole enterprise. While we’re all fawning over Tesco’s newest stores, I suspect that these are just phase one in a much longer-range plan. I know people who believe that Tesco will have 5,000 of these things all over the US in five years, and I know other people who think they just won’t work. I’d guess that the reality will be somewhere in the middle – they’ll work, but they are part of a broader strategy for how and where Tesco wants to engage with US customers.

What else can I tell you? Well, the pre-wrapped grapes that I ate were crisp and neither too tart nor too sweet…so score one for Fresh & Easy. And the sushi was excellent – always a good indicator of whether a store is getting the freshness thing right. Fresh & Easy also is offering its own version of Two Buck Chuck – several wines going for $1.99. But it is only 10:30 in the morning as I record this, so I didn’t think it was appropriate to taste it. I’ll have to get back to you on it.

One final thought…if Tesco were to come to the US with just another supermarket, one that was its version of what retailers here already are doing, I think there would be a legitimate reason to question the strategy and even the sanity of Tesco’s leadership. They are to be complimented for doing something different. Will it be the right formula to attract US consumers, especially in the vastly different markets where it plans to put the stores? I have no idea. But Tesco’s is nothing if not crafty and innovative…and I suspect that as its strategy and tactics unfold, it will prove to be interesting to consumers and challenging to its competitors.

For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

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