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The Los Angeles Times reports this morning that Tesco will open its newest Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market today in Manhattan Beach, California, the 62nd store that the company has opened in the United States since late last year but the first to be unveiled since the company took a self-imposed three-month time-out to “tweak” the concept.

The Times notes that “Fresh & Easy plans a rash of openings, starting with the store on Rosecrans Avenue. It will be the chain's 32nd store in the region; 70 more are planned for Southern California this year.”

Tweaks aside, the new Manhattan Beach store may also pose the biggest challenge for Fresh & Easy, since it is located just across the parking lot from the format with which it has been most – and often unfavorably – compared: Trader Joe’s.

“The rival stores are on the same street corner, separated only by an Office Depot, and that allows customers to check out both, make direct comparisons and -- with a little chutzpah -- even use the same shopping cart,” the Times writes.

KC's View:
I actually saw the proximity of these two stores last week while in Southern California to give a speech, and would note that there is another major player in the immediate vicinity – Bristol Farms, which has a terrific store just two-tenths of a mile west of Fresh & Easy and Trader Joe’s. (Bristol Farms is a much bigger and more ambitious offering, and so isn’t going after the same customer as the other two…though it does have a strong prepared foods business that could be impacted by the new store.)

I would make a couple of points about the new Fresh & Easy. One is that from peering in the front window, it is hard to see any major adjustments in the format; however, this isn’t a completely fair observation since I couldn’t walk the floor and most of the shelves were still empty.

The other is that whatever changes they may have made in the Fresh & Easy format, Tesco better bring its “A” game. The Trader Joe’s with which it is competing is a vibrant, vital and enormously popular store. When I wandered in, late afternoon last Friday, it was packed. (So was the Bristol Farms, by the way.) Nothing else than an exceptional offering will do if Fresh & Easy is going to be competitive.

Another point about Fresh & Easy…when I visited an Anaheim unit last Wednesday at about 4:45 pm, it was pretty empty…not just of customers, but also of a lot of product. Walk up to the sandwich and sushi case, and there were just a couple of sad looking sandwiches and one container of sushi that certainly didn’t get my heart racing. And the prepared foods case wasn't exactly brimming with product, either.

Now, maybe the argument here is that to make sure that all the product is fresh, when it’s gone, it’s gone.

On the other hand, if someone were to walk into that store looking for sushi or a sandwich for dinner, they were going to be disappointed.

In sort, it didn’t seem like the Anaheim store was bringing its “A” game. Fresh & Easy has to do better in Manhattan Beach, I think.