Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fear & Loathing in the Aisles: Reduction in Hours and Selected Firings Begin Today at 33 Fresh & Easy Stores

The Insider - Heard on the Street

Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market began terminating selected store-level employees, mostly but not exclusively regular grocery clerks called Customer Assistants, today at 33 of its 199 grocery markets in California, Nevada and Arizona.

I learned this while visiting a number of Fresh & Easy stores in two states yesterday and today.

I also verified it with a number of store-level Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market employees, including two who were fired today.

In this July 26, 2012 piece, Fear and Loathing in El Segundo: Mass Firings, Reduction in Store Hours at 33 Fresh & Easy Stores ... and More, I reported exclusively that Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market planned to reduce the operating hours at 33 of its stores from the retailer's normal 8 a.m.-10 p.m. hours to 9 a.m-8 pm, beginning soon.

That day is here: I also learned during my store visits yesterday and today that the reduced hours at the 33 stores are effective today. Instead of the previous 8 a.m.-10 p.m. operating hours, the doors to these 33 Fresh & Easy markets now officially open at 9 a.m, and close at 8 a.m.

I'm not aware of one grocery chain (read competitor to Tesco's Fresh & Easy) in California, Nevada and Arizona. In fact, many stores operated by the leading chains in the three states, such as Safeway, Kroger Co., Supervalu, Save Mart, Albertson's LLC, Stater Bros. and others, keep many of their respective stores open 24-hours. The stores not open 24-hours close generally at 11 p.m or midnight and open at 7 a.m.

Grocery stores that are doing well don't close at 8 p.m., unless they're doing so well that opening them any later would prove to be an embarrassment of riches to a modest grocery retailer. And grocers who want their stores to do well don't close them at 8 p.m.

Additionally, for those not experienced in the food and grocery retailing business, if a grocer decides to close a bunch of stores, like 33 of its 199 units, at 8 p.m. rather than the previous 10 p.m., you can take it to the bank the company CEO has very little if any faith in the future potential of those stores. If that's not the case, then he just doesn't understand the grocery business.

The selected store-level layoffs are a part of the reduction in hours program at the 33 Fresh & Easy stores.

Since the stores are opening one hour later and closing two hours earlier, less employees are needed.

Some of the workers at the affected stores are getting transfers to other Fresh & Easy markets.

Other employees at the 33 stores are getting their hours cut, in many cases down to 20 hours a week, which is the minimum they are required to work in order for the grocery chain to pay the 70-75% employer contribution for the workers health insurance policies.

Over the last five years of its operation (the first stores opened in November 2007) most Fresh & Easy Customer Assistants, who are hired part time and guaranteed 20 hours a week at the time of hire, have worked more than the minimum guaranteed hours at the request of either store management or themselves. Few employees have worked just 20 hours a week over the last five years Fresh &Easy has been in operation.

Cost-cutting strategy

The reduction in store operating hours and related reduction in store employee hours, along with the layoffs of the Customer Assistants and others I'm telling readers about today, is all about reducing labor and related costs for Tesco's Fresh & Easy.

The store-level cuts go hand-in-hand with the termination of about 50 employees in one day at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market's corporate headquarters in El Segundo, California, which I wrote about here on July 26.

Battles and wars

The cost-cutting comes now, in my analysis and opinion, because Tesco's fiscal half-year ends in about a month. Tesco must show its making at least a minimum reduction in its losses, $245 million for the most-recently-ended fiscal year (ended February 2012), when it reports its fiscal half-year results this fall.

Prior to making the cuts at its corporate headquarters in late July and the store-reductions I'm describing in this piece, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market was not on track to show any significant improvement in its half-year performance over the previous half-year, based on my reporting and analysis.

Since the cuts come so near the end of the half-year, I don't expect Tesco to report a major reduction in losses for the half-year in relation to the $245 million it lost in its most-recently ended fiscal year. It will be interesting to see - and more cuts are coming - what Tesco does report as a loss for Fresh & Easy for the half-year.

Breaking even with Fresh & Easy, which Tesco says it will do so by the end of its 2014 fiscal year, which is less than two years away, is only part of the story for Tesco - it's the battle but not the war. And it's the war that truly matters. Despite winning many battles a war can still be lost.

For Tesco, continuing my battle vs. war analogy, the war boils down to this question: Does Fresh & Easy have a future as a viable and profitable grocery chain?

That's a question I will be addressing in one of my next columns.

-The Insider

[Editor's Note: 'The Insider' isn't a literal or descriptiive title for our columnist. Fresh & Easy Buzz is an independent Blog, and is not affiliated with Tesco, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, or any of its competitors. No member of the Fresh & Easy Buzz editorial team has ever or currently works for Tesco or its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain.]

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fresh & Easy Developing Smaller Version of its 3K Square-Foot 'Fresh & Easy Express' Format Stores

Breaking Buzz & Analysis

Tesco-owned Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is currently developing a 2,000 square-foot version of its 3,000 square-foot 'Fresh & Easy Express' convenience-oriented food and grocery market, according to multiple sources familiar with the project.

Fresh & Easy is constructing a prototype of the 2,000 square-foot store inside a space it controls near the 10,000 square-foot Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market unit in Los Angeles' Eagle Rock Neighborhood.

El Segundo, California-based Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market used that very same space to build a mock-up of its 3,000 square-foot 'Express' format stores, of which their are currently about 10 units, all in Southern California.

The new 2,000 square-foot market, called an F2 in Fresh & Easy speak - the 10,000 square-foot stores for example are referred to internally at Fresh & Easy as F10's, the 3,000 square-foot stores F3's, and the handful of 7,000 square-foot markets the grocer operates are F7's - is basically a scaled-down version of the 3,000 square-foot stores, according to sources who are familiar with the project.

For example, current plans call for smaller refrigerated, frozen food and produce cases than in the 3,000 square-foot stores as a way to compensate for the reduced square footage, according to our sources. Some types of cases and shelving also could be eliminated for the same reason, our sources say.

Neither Tesco or its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain have announced the development of the 2,000 square-foot stores. This is the first time Tesco's plans for a smaller version of the 3,000 square-foot 'Fresh & Easy Express' store is being reported.


The first question any food and grocery retailing analyst or grocer worth his or her salt should ask upon reading this report is: 'Why a 2,000 square-foot version of what already at 3,000 square feet is a very small-format grocery market.?

The answer to that question, according to our sources (and to our reporting and analysis of Tesco and its Fresh & Easy chain for five years on) - and it's what we said was the primary driving force behind the 3,000 square-foot 'Express' format in our stories about the stores last year - is that Tesco's Fresh & Easy is searching for ways to reduce its new store development and opening capital cost while still growing its store count.

Since launching its California-based small-format fresh food and grocery chain in 2007, Tesco has always said it will break even financially with Fresh & Easy - which lost about $245 million in its most recent fiscal year and has lost about $1.5 billion over its five year history - by achieving scale, which means opening numerous stores over a short period of time.

For example, from 2006 to 2010 Tesco said it still planned to have at least 500 stores in four-to-five years, on its way to 1,000 stores over an about six or seven year period, which would be 2013-end-to-2014. It said this despite the fact it's paused opening new stores for many months at least three times in Fresh & Easy's five year history. The most recent period being at present.

But in 2011, not long after he took over as CEO of Tesco in March of last year, Philip Clarke said the United Kingdom-based retailer planned to open just 400 Fresh & Easy stores, which would allow Tesco to break even with its U.S. grocery chain by the end of its 2013 fiscal year, which ends February 2013.

Not many months later Clarke and Tesco changed those plans, saying instead of the 400 Fresh & Easy units needed to break even by the end of fiscal 2013, it had figured out a way to do so with just 300 stores.

But then earlier this year Clarke and Tesco pushed back Fresh & Easy's break-even time to the end of its 2014 fiscal year, at which time the retailer says it will then break even with Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. Tesco kept - so far - the 300 store number as the number of Fresh & Easy units needed to break even by the end of the 2014 fiscal year.

There are 199 Fresh & Easy stores in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Tesco's 2014 fiscal year-end is about two years away. That means it will have to build and open 101 stores between now and then to reach 300 units, which Clarke and company say is needed to break even at that time.

But Tesco has essentially stopped opening Fresh & Easy stores, with the exception of one or two here or there.

Instead, the retailer has embarked on a cost-cutting campaign of limited sorts with Fresh & Easy, which begs another key question any industry analyst or grocer should ask: "How can Tesco open 101 stores in two years - which is half as many as it's opened over the last five years - when beginning a couple months ago it essentially stopped opening new Fresh & Easy stores?

In fact, even if Tesco were opening Fresh & Easy stores at its high-point-pace, it would be near physically and logistically impossible, and not very smart, to open 101 stores in two years, particularly considering the continued poor performance of the California-based grocery chain and its need to reduce costs and raise margin at it to even come close to breaking even with Fresh & Easy

The answer to the question, as it pertains to the micro small-format store prototype being developed, isn't that Tesco is going to open 101 2,000 square-foot grocery markets - the format in development. For example, it's opened just 10 or so of the 3,000 square-foot Fresh & Easy Express stores in the year or so since the first unit was opened.

There are numerous reasons why they won't do so but here's a simple reason why if they do it won't help: The best 10,000 square-foot Fresh & Easy stores do about $150,000 in average weekly sales, and there aren't many of those units. That would mean the best of the 2,000 square-foot stores would do - at best - about 40,000 in weekly sales. If scale, as in growing sales by growing store-count, matters, 101 2,000 square-foot stores, even if they all were stellar performers, which they won't be, doesn't add up to a whole lot of annual sales when one looks at the big picture.

But hopes and dreams of reduced capital costs without considering the fundamental question - can 2,000 square-foot grocery stores operated the way Fresh & Easy operates them make any money - it appears spring eternal at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market.

Therefore, the Tesco-owned chain is developing a smaller version of its 3,000 square-foot 'Express' store, shaving 1,000 square feet off the store size.

Perhaps Tesco hopes it can "shrink" (in terms of store size) rather than grow (recall those days of a 1,000-store chain) its way to break-even with Fresh & Easy.

But size does matter. And a 2,000 square-foot grocery market, like all small formats - including 3,000 and 10,000 square-foot grocery stores - are fraught with problems when it comes to making money. Just ask Walmart - the now folded 'marketside by Walmart' stores and its fledgling small-format Walmart Express, which despite being 15,000 square-feet is having economic struggles endemic to many small-format grocery stores, particularly those run by chains without a history of operating such stores.

Or ask Safeway CEO Steve Burd, who put an end to the California-based supermarket chain's 'The Market' format (10,000-14,000 square-foot grocery markets ) after just two test units has been opened and operated for about one-year each. Both stores, in Long Beach and San Jose, California, remain open but Burd killed further development of the format over two years ago.

According to our sources, at present there isn't a set date for when - or if - the first 2,000 square-foot Fresh & Easy store will open. However, our sources say, Fresh & Easy already has a number of locations for the stores scouted out, although much of the grocer's real estate team was fired last Wednesday, which is an important indication of the future of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market's new store development plans.

Those plans: Little to nothing going forward for the rest of this year in terms of acquiring new store sites - there are already dozens of Fresh & Easy sites that have been sitting fallow for as long as four-to-five years - and opening new Fresh & Easy stores.

[Editor's Note: Fresh & Easy Buzz is an independent Blog, and is not affiliated with Tesco, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, or any of its competitors. No member of the Fresh & Easy Buzz editorial team has ever or currently works for Tesco or its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain.]