Monday, April 14, 2008

Commentary: Fresh & Easy Should Use its New-Store Opening 'Pause' in Part to Further Train, Develop and Reward its Store-Level Employees

As we reported in this piece on March 29, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market's small-format grocery store retailing venture in the USA is taking a new store opening "pause" or hiatus during the months of April, May and June, to do what it's going to do during that "pause" or hiatus. New stores are said to start opening again in July.

Since November, 2007, the grocery chain has been on a new store-opening blitz, opening 61 stores in a little over 150 days, or one new store about every two and one-half days. Could be a world's record?

We suggest Fresh & Easy's marketing department check it out with the Guinness Book of World Records folks. The grocery chain might have beat the record, if one exists, for the most stores open in the fastest period of time with Fresh & Easy USA. If no such record exists, Fresh & Easy could then just submit itself for it and be the world record holder in the category without even competing. We aren't teasing, by the way. Holding such a world record would be a great vehicle for some fun--and positive--press. Consider it a free PR gift from Fresh & Easy Buzz.

But we digress...intentionally, but still a digression none the less.

What we're here to say in this piece, is that if done properly one of the benefits of this new store opening hiatus would be to focus on store-level employees a bit.

Since December, we've talked to nearly a score of store employees in Southern California and Arizona, as well as receiving a number of emails from store workers who found Fresh & Easy Buzz via Google or Yahoo search, or were turned on to it by others.

The most common theme in these conversations and emails has been that because Fresh & Easy has been on such a major new store opening blitz, there's been little time for quality store-level training of employees.

We want to say, to Fresh & Easy's credit, the vast majority of the store-level workers we've talked to and received emails from, say they like the company and their jobs in the stores. Many are very enthused about the opportunity to be part of something new and different in U.S. grocery retailing as well. Very few have been negative about the company or there jobs--except they would like to make a bit more than a starting wage of $10 an hour.

However, almost all of the store-level associates we've talked to and corresponded with have said the same thing, which is that with the new store opening pace being at such a frenzy, they don't feel they've received enough quality training (and attention) to do their jobs. And in many cases that they've sort of been left to figure out too many things for themselves.

Many of the Fresh & Easy store-level workers also have told us, with things so hectic they don't feel they've received enough one-on-one time with company management; not store management but corporate-level folks.

These comments--and as we said, nearly to an employee have we seen enthusiasm for the company and their jobs--haven't and don't surprise us. When a retailer is launching as rapid of a new store building and opening program like Tesco is with Fresh & Easy, something has to give: And often times that something is employees who already are working in a store that's open. It's on to the next opening, so to speak. Charge ahead.

We suggest the three month new store opening "pause" would be the perfect time to put a major focus on continued training and focused communication (and feedback from) of and with store-level employees.

Perhaps Fresh & Easy should even consider taking a page out of Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz's recent employee training program.

Believing Starbucks as a company and coffee retailer has gotten off track and was losing it's culture of warmth and friendliness in the stores (not because of store-level employees but because of senior management decisions before he took over recently as CEO for the second time in his career), Starbucks' founder, chairman and now CEO again, Schultz closed all of the stores for three hours last month in order to devote that time to retraining, talking to and listening to Starbucks cafe workers in all its U.S. stores.

Senior and regional managers spent the three hours in the stores in their respective regions focusing on customer relations and other key behaviors and policies which made the coffee retailer the success it is, despite having serious problems the last couple years.

The affect of Starbucks' three hour session was as much the emphasis it put on the importance of the company's store-level workers, as what went on during the sessions. To close a store for three hours is something most retailers think is akin to giving away every other purchase for free. It's just seldom if ever done.

By doing so, Schultz sent a big signal company-wide that he was serious--and willing to lose three hours of sales to better coach store-level employees as one measure in getting the coffee retailer back on track...and the stock price up of course.

Fresh & Easy of course doesn't have to do anything dramatic like following the Starbucks' model described above--although there certainly are merits to doing so. However, we suggest strongly that creating a specific, real and thoughtful "training day" of some sort for the grocery chain's store-level employees would not only give them something we believe they want, but would let them know how important they are as well, in addition to only making the stores better in the short, medium and long run.

Our observation thus far is that Fresh & Easy's store-level employees are in the main the retailer's most valuable asset thus far. Sort of the crown jewel if you will.

Most valuable assets need to be nurtured.

We also suggest a nice $50 bonus (a clean, crisp $50 bill) be given to each Fresh & Easy store-level employee at the end of that special training and communication session.

After all, in addition to nurturing valuable assets and crown jewels, they also should be surprised and rewarded for jobs well done in a difficult environment.

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