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The Flexibility of a Great Retailer

by Donald Potter

Many people in the United States have heard little of Tesco, but it is a great retailer. In fact, it is the fourth largest retailer in the world, following Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Home Depot.

Tesco has about 30% of the total grocery sales in the U.K. There it operates with several different formats and price points. It has been very successful, both in the U.K. and in the several other countries in which it has operated.

In late 2007, the company opened its first U.S. stores, called Fresh & Easy. There are now 114 of these stores spread out through California, Arizona and Nevada. The Fresh & Easy format calls for small stores of about 10,000 square feet, focused on food, with an “Every Day Low Price” pricing scheme where prices were 10 to 25% below those at regular grocery stores.

The economy immediately presented Tesco with big problems. The Western U.S. has been hard hit by the recession. Customers have grown accustom to “Every Day Low Prices.” As a result, while Fresh & Easy generates more sales per square foot than the industry average, the company has not been able to open as many stores as it had hoped.

The company has responded quickly and creatively. Since customers began to take “Every Day Low Prices” for granted, the company began emphasizing extra low prices on individual items. They promoted low-priced special items, using radio commercials. As an example, the company offered $9.99 Valentines Day bouquets through radio commercials. The company also began emphasizing its Buxted brands in its stores. In the meat isle, these private label products are trimmed less well than the standard Fresh & Easy products and cost as much as 40% less.

These pricing moves are impressive. Most low-end competitors, such as Fresh & Easy in the U.S. market, could not afford to emphasize even lower priced products and expensive mass media advertising. (See the Perspective, “Turmoil Below: Confronting Low-End Competition” on Few, if any, low-end retailers would do this, but Tesco did.

The company also has made changes in the look of its stores. The company repainted the walls in pastels and added a warmer color to the concrete floors after customers reported that they thought the stores were too sterile. Remember, most of these stores are less than a year old. The maintenance schedule did not call for a new paint job. But the customer did.

I am not sure whether the current Tesco concept will succeed. It is likely, however, that Tesco will find a format that works well in the United States. Their moves to date demonstrate that they are a flexible and creative company, determined to succeed.