Sic Transit Fresh and Easy


You know the kind of person who means well but has no clue how the real world works? They fall for multi-level marketing scams, or make heavy financial donations to lost causes, or try to support the right causes, but do so in a very silly, inefficient way?

Allow me to tell you the tale of Fresh and Easy, a store chain with an interesting, even laudable, concept that utterly failed when exposed to reality.

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Fresh and Easy was founded in 2007, and was originally owned by Tesco, a very, very large food retailer based in England. The concept of the store was pretty simple: provide high-quality, including organic (so not always high quality, it seems), fruits and vegetables (fresh), and high-quality pre-prepared meals that could be heated in ovens or microwaves (easy), in smaller-scale, limited selection, stores based generally in high-density urban areas. They also wanted to do these things in an environmentally-friendly way, which included things like special parking spaces for hybrid vehicles.

As a concept, this is pretty great. It’s worked wonders for places like Tesco over in the UK and other grocery chains throughout Europe. On the East Coast of the United States, where German grocery store giant Aldi has found much success, this concept could have probably worked out very well. But it failed. Why?

Money.

There’s an F&E about 1/4 of a mile from me. My neighborhood is not terrible by any means, but it’s a lower-middle class neighborhood, with a fair number of condos, apartments and single-family homes. Once you get north of the F&E location (my neighborhood is south of it), things get a bit more sketchy, and the “middle” part generally drops out of the neighborhood description.

Now this wouldn’t be a problem if the Fresh and Easy were instead, say, a smaller Wal-Mart. But Fresh and Easy’s prices were, and even still are, quite insane. It’s not Whole Foods-level insanity, but it’s pretty bad. How bad?

Right now the store is having its closing sale and I just came back from it a few minutes ago. Everything in the store is 10% – 30% off. Great, right? Time to go stock up.

Well, let me give you an example of what this means in reality. You know those little Totino’s party pizzas? They’re small, but basically pretty tasty, if not the best. They usually retail for about $1.25 to $1.50, and if you’re lucky, you can get 5 for $5 sales. Great!

Fresh and Easy sells these things for $1.79 each. Ok, so financially that’s not a huge difference, but percentage-wise it very much is. When I bought one today, it was 30% off. $1.79 minus 30% is…$1.25. So their close-out clearance sale price is only just the same as other stores charge normally.

Here’s another example from my receipt: Hormel Chili. Most places sell it at $1.99. On sale you might find it for as low as $1.49, or even $.99, if you’re especially lucky. Fresh and Easy’s normal price is $2.49. After what I think was a 20% discount (I don’t remember for sure), it winds up being…$1.99. So, again, their cheapest price ever is what other stores normally sell the product for.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The selection at the stores was very limited, the prices were very high, and while their store brand stuff was excellent, even those items were generally priced higher than “premium” food items at other stores.

If I were a parent living in this area and had to go out shopping for a family of four, had no car, and had a Fresh and Easy right across the street from me, I’d still hire an Uber driver and go to the nearest Safeway (somewhat better), Fry’s Foods (quite a bit better), or WinCo (best). I might hit F&E once or twice a month to do things like get a jug of milk and some fresh greens, but that’s about it. I simply couldn’t afford anything else.

A real-life example here: last year I had to, to my annoyance, go onto food stamps for the first time since the late 1990s. I got $189 a month. A friend and I would, each month, go to WinCo, where we’d fill up all of a shopping cart with a month’s worth of food, end up with so much stuff I ran out of space to store it, and still have $40 or so left over. My benefits were not renewed, which didn’t bother me too much, but I did regret it in one way. My friend and I had planned to take my final month’s food stamps and, as an experiment, go by all my month’s groceries at Fresh and Easy. I can pretty much guarantee that I Wouldn’t have had $40 left, nor so much food that storage would be an issue.

Fresh and Easy remains an excellent idea, and there are many areas that could benefit from having a store like this. But the concept was badly mishandled, and ultimately the customers weren’t willing to pay a premium, especially in neighborhoods like mine, which is home to what was, at least as of a couple of years ago, one of the busiest stores in the chain. A store where I never once, not even one time, had to wait in a line to check out.

I do hope that someone like WinCo picks up this concept and runs with it, because I do like it. But whomever does it needs to be a lot more connected to reality.

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