Monday, November 12, 2007

Fresh and Easy

Fresh and Easy opened their very first store right here in the valley! It made the international news as this is Tesco's first foray into the states.

After enduring years and years of low quality grocers here I am very glad to see Fresh and Easy. Not so glad that they are Europe's Walmart, but glad just the same. To my best understanding they pay a fair wage, provide good health benefits and treat their employees honestly. The union is up in arms. Of course they are,Fresh and Easy is a non-union shop in a union state. The union will picket. They have not been picketing in our town, just at the distribution centers I've heard.

I have been to the store three times in about a week. I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit. I can now purchase Pancetta in town!!!! Yay. There were a couple of other items I noticed that have never been available from a retail grocer in town. It is a good sign for all of us "gourmet" buyers.

The store is well laid out, the aisles are not too tall. It seems they kept women in mind when designing the store as the shelves are not higher than five feet in height. The floors are a painted concrete and have a texture to them so there won't be slip and fall accidents. The first store I worked in with concrete floors was Central Market in Texas. I think they set the stage for other grocers to embrace the design. It gives the store a clean feeling and I am sure it is easier to keep up than tile or vinyl flooring. It is well lit and the colors are pleasing.

One thing that surprised me was the produce - in all in bags. Not bags as you would expect like oranges or potatoes are packaged, but form fill and seal bags. I am wishing out loud that I could see this being packaged. After running a food production facility for 6 years, using forming and sealing equipment for 80 percent of everything we sold, I would really like to see how they do it with vegetables and fruit. Our fillers were vertical, the food would go up and elevator and get weighed out then dropped into the bag through a chute, a drop of about four feet. This can't be done with fruit. It will bruise it up too much. So I am guessing that the filler is horizontal much like baked goods are packaged. Now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about packing fruit... I mention it because you don't get to touch your produce and pick it out individually. It is packaged up and you "choose" through the package. Hmmmmm. Not sure this is going to be well received, but you never know.

They have a grab and go section and then move to the fresh meats. The meat is expensive and will confuse the older set here in town. It gives the price per pound on the shelf tag, then each packaged is priced by weight. So there will be a few retirees upset that their $6.88 a pound beef purchase is suddenly $12. It will confuse them and they won't be happy, I am certain of that. The meat section and deli sections are the tallest shelves in the store. A bit too tall for the older ladies.

Then you move through dry grocery and bread. Good selection of both. Mostly Fresh and Easy brand however. Those people looking for national brands are going to be disappointed by the lack thereof. Still I will give the F&E brand a try and see how it goes. I do not purchase a lot of pre-packaged foods any longer so this may take some time to evaluate.

At the very back of the store is the frozen section and the wall opposite bread and cakes is where the non-foods are located. It is a good choice in layout to keep all these soaps and non-food items away from the food. I like the concept a lot.

The checkout is self serve. Yay! I love being able to check out my own stuff and bag it and then get the heck out of there. It makes it quick and easy. However, one of the registers doesn't have a shelf to place the tote on and it is frustrating as you have to bend over and pick stuff out of the tote from the floor. Bad design there! Hopefully they'll fix that soon. Also you can pay with cash, credit cards, or debit cards, (not sure about checks) however, you cannot get cash back with a debit card. They have an ATM in store if you need cash (weird).

They also have security in the parking lot and at the entrance of the store - 2 people. Is this really necessary???!!! It gives a feeling of "whoa, am I in the wrong neighborhood here?" and I wasn't sure I wanted to risk being accosted. I believe it is a bit of overkill as the parking lot is well lit at night and shares the area with a bank and other stores.

I was disappointed the two other times I went in. I visited the store after 4 p.m. and the store was gutted. Not a lot of product to choose from and it was a bit frustrating. You could purchase plenty of frozen foods, but that isn't why I went to Fresh and Easy. I went to get fresh foods. I hope, hope, hope, they will figure this part out. I spoke with one gentleman, he explained that they had talked to the district manager and had gotten the message to him that they needed more product and if I would be patient they would have the problem solved. Are they drop shipping their orders and not allowing the store to order their needs??? The store manager was a short distance away and the guy I was talking to pointed him out, he noticed we were talking about him and he quickly turned and walked away. Not a good sign to me. The store manager should be talking to his guests and helping to meet their needs, or explaining why they can't. Maybe he was having a bad day but... so much for paying attention dude. There are times when I wish everyone could work for John Campbell (manager of the first Central Market) for just a bit. The man understood meeting customer need better than anyone I ever worked for in my career. I really respect the guy.

Trader Joe's has been named as Fresh and Easy's biggest competitor. Maybe. The store is filled with items TJ's doesn't carry and probably never will. TJs also allows you to pick through the produce and choose your own. Their shelves are stocked, too. Hopefully Fresh and Easy will get this dialed in and move forward in a positive way or they will just become the world's most expensive 7-11. I understand the model they are attempting to use. Expediency is the name of the game. However, expediency for expediency's sake doesn't always work. There has to be the human element and they aren't there just to stock shelves or instruct someone how to use the cash register.

I say good luck Fresh and Easy.