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A week after Tesco opened its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores in Southern California, the first in a rollout of hundreds of small-format grocery stores that will blanket Southern California, Arizona and Nevada over the coming year, evaluations of how the stores are doing continue to come in.

The Orange County Register has a “Fast Food Maven” column reporting on numerous out of stocks, especially in the prepared foods categories.

Fresh & Easy executives say that products have been “flying off the shelves” faster than expected, and ask shoppers to “be patient” as it tries to catch up with demand.

In addition, there are pictures on blogger Ellen Bloom’s website, which carries the Chandlerian title “LA Is My Beat,” of empty shelves at Fresh & Easy. Really, really empty shelves.

As, Bloom writes: “When I walk into a grocery store, I want to see the shelves fully-stocked and I want to have a variety of choices. Considering what I saw at the Eagle Rock/Glassell Park Store, I wasn't impressed. I'll see you at Trader Joe’s and Vons.”

And, in a speech to a Morgan Stanley retail conference this week, Supervalu CEO Jeff Noddle said that Fresh & Easy had been “plainer” than expected, with fewer prepared food offerings than expected…but he said that he expected greater innovation and more choice down the road from Tesco’s US operations.

KC's View:
The Fresh & Easy stores that are open now are just phase one. Just wait.

That said, it never is a positive thing to have people talking about the out of stocks rather than the food. And it isn’t like Tesco didn’t have enough time to predict the demand.

I will tell you this. Everybody I have talked to about Fresh & Easy’s cheap - $1.99 per bottle – wine has found it “drinkable,” and better when allowed to breathe for a while.

However, I also spoke with my brother, who lives with his wife in Southern California and who was excited because the organic/vegetarian prepared items contain gardein, which they’ve had trouble finding. Upon tasting several items, however, their verdict was at best mixed: they said the chicken was good and the beef was rubbery. The soy yogurt they ate was “horrible,” and the mango pudding was “decent.” The chicken and cheese burritos were judged to be pretty good.

This is, admittedly, a non-scientific survey. But Tesco has to be concerned that the word of mouth may be less than they’d like it to be, with questions being raised about availability and taste. Again, it is early…and the jury remains out.