So, what's up with Fresh & Easy anyway?

Background: Why I care so much about a grocery store
If you've followed my blog or social media feeds for some time, you're likely well aware of my love affair with Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets. When the stores first opened in my area, I blogged about my very pleasant experience shopping there for the first time, and pretty much shopped there every week after that. Fresh & Easy's representatives noticed my happy reaction and because of that I was lucky enough to be a part of their "blogger circle" (my nickname for it, not theirs) and have had the opportunity to participate in neat things such as store grand opening events, tastings of their new food and wine offerings (and the hubs enjoyed a few beer tastings as well). .

Beyond my blogger relationship to the store, I was a very satisfied shopper of the store. Biggest reasons? Incredibly convenient and fast (I can shop for an entire week in about 20 minutes and find almost everything I need in one place), pleasant atmosphere, quality foods and organics at prices within my reach and of course, like everyone else who shopped there and had email - the insanely valuable store coupons. I'd use coupons to the tune of $25/week on average, which had a major effect on my grocery spending.

After a year and many months of happy shopping - I heard the news that Fresh & Easy was possibly closing or being sold, as their British parent company, Tesco, had decided to pull out of the Fresh & Easy stores as they were losing a lot of money. Fresh & Easy's concept seemed to work well in the UK, but didn't translate to American shopping. A buyer came through for the F&E stores, and while some stores did close, many remained open and have kept the F&E name and appearance.

My neighborhood store (luckily) was one that remained, however, I of course wondered what to expect with the new ownership in place. The first thing I noticed (along with many other loyal shoppers) was that we no longer were receiving coupons in our weekly email. I was admittedly pretty bummed. Those coupons saved us quite a bit of money. So, I decided to see what my other (tolerable) grocery options were.

Shopping Experiments
After shopping at F&E EVERY week since they opened (and spending on average $79 per week for groceries there), I tried buying all of my groceries at Target for a few weeks. Here's what I found:
  • Target:  Too many non-grocery temptations. I didn't need a clearance pair of pants for my munchkin, 2 for 1 self-tanner or a scented candle to make meals for the week - but they were THERE while I was grocery shopping in that huge store, and I threw them into my cart with my groceries. Result: 1 week's groceries = $150
  • Trader Joe's: So many yummy specialty foods that I didn't really need... like a toy store but for food. Having to shop on weekends also meant a crowded parking lot and crowded store. Their produce is of good quality, but to buy it in larger quantities is pricey at TJ's. Result: 1 week's groceries = $180 (oops)
  • Costco: SO many yummy things, and I'll have plenty of bread for several weeks, and plenty of bell peppers too - but, when you spend $150 for 12-15 total types of items, your recipe capability gets limited. Result = fresh, high quality food, but few items in a large quantity and $150 spent.
So... I went back to F&E without coupons. I bought what I'd normally buy and ended up with a total of $100. I also was in and out of the store in about 20 minutes. After digesting this, I realized that though I spent more than I did with the coupons, I still had food that was really fresh and of really good quality for less than I'd spent elsewhere AND I had more of my precious weekend time left. (Time to shop my list in Target averaged over an hour for me.)

If you're thinking, "I thought you had some info about what's happening with the stores now?"
Yes! Today, a couple of F&E's company representatives traveled to Fresno to tour my neighborhood store with me, and discuss the changes that are taking place under the new ownership/leadership. I got to ask questions too. I tried to think of as many of my friend's questions that I'd overheard or seen posted on social media to get those answered as well. Here's what I found out.
  • The high value store coupons are gone, and won't be back. The store was essentially paying people to shop, which isn't a feasible business plan - especially for a company trying to become profitable after taking huge losses.
  • F&E isn't against manufacturer coupons, and may consider accepting them in the future. The reason they don't accept them now has more to do with their register technology and systems, not a stance against them.
  • The store is focusing on being fresher - produce, meats, grab and go meals - their dates are all being shortened and products are on display for 1-2 days vs. several days. The stores are receiving daily deliveries and their in-store bakeries are baking everything in-house, twice daily.
    Yummy baked goods, fresh baked today
    I think people may be under the impression smaller stores = slim selection. But, I had great luck in finding even exotic produce there myself! (Today, I noticed they started carrying won ton wrappers- I have some Pinterest recipes to try!)
  • They're also focusing on being easier - all of the grab and go meals have been moved to the front of the store (not just the sandwiches and salads, but the dinner type meals as well) so people in a hurry or not wanting to cook can save time and get high quality food. 
    New labels tell you which day the food was meant to be enjoyed AND when it officially expires
  • The old F&E was run from one location, and all stores pretty much carried the exact same products. As you could imagine, when it comes to foods - tastes can vary widely by region! This resulted in unsold product and waste and customers not finding exactly what they were looking for. Soon, local store managers will be in charge of their own ordering and be able to carry items that are wanted by their local shoppers and ditch those that just take up valuable shelf space. 
  • All items in each store are being individually evaluated for competitive pricing and demand. Yes, some lesser-purchased products may leave the shelves (apparently, I need to stock up on my favorite Thai Curry Simmer Sauce) but they'll make room for products that are in high demand. 
  • Pricing will move from a "high-low" model (an item is either on sale, and at rock bottom prices that actually cause a loss for the store, but bring people in - or they're higher than other stores if not on sale) to a more evened out model which allows F&E to stabilize at competitive prices.
  • Wild Oats is a company owned by the same parent company the bought F&E and focuses on organic, healthy and very fresh foods. One item I noticed in the store was their line of eggs. There was a little card near them that explained that conventional egg suppliers provide eggs that may have been laid up to 6 weeks prior to when you get the carton home (yuck). But, the Wild Oats eggs get to the store within 3 days of being laid and each EGG is stamped with the date it was laid. Seems like there will be quite a few more Wild Oats items popping up in F&E stores, and I'm definitely curious to try them. 

*Note: I'm a huge fan of buying local and supporting local businesses. My friend Hannah (and her sister Holly) have an amazing ranch that produces delicious, freshly laid eggs every day - if you have access to them - BUY THEM, they're wonderful! But, if for some reason you can't get some (or they're sold out), at least now you have a backup.

Final thoughts
F&E is working to find a balance between offering very high quality foods and very low prices. Before, they tried to offer the lowest prices on the highest quality foods, but unfortunately, that's not a sustainable business model (read: losing lots and lots of money). So, the store is going to continue to focus on high-quality foods and will be offering competitive, stable prices. Will they be the cheapest? Probably not - but, they will definitely be competitive and certainly not the most expensive either.

If you value high-quality foods and saving your precious free time enough to spend a little more than you would at say, Winco or Foodsco (which is the boat I'm in, since most of the food I buy is fresh produce, meats and such and I am unhappy with what I've found at the discount stores), I think you'll really enjoy F&E, especially as they continue to adapt. Futhermore, the reps I spent the afternoon with seemed to really emphasize the nimbleness and flexibility of the company as decisions continue to be made - so if there's something you'd really like to see happening in stores, I'd encourage you to share your constructive ideas and thoughts with F&E via their Facebook, Twitter or Contact Page. If they're willing to travel all the way to me to chat about their plans, I'm pretty sure they're more than open to hearing your ideas.

Disclosure: I have not been paid for my opinions in any way, nor was I even asked to blog about this. My opinions are my own. Everyone's entitled to theirs as well, however due to rude comments and the fact that this is my blog and I don't have to deal with that - I'm turning off comments now. If you prefer a different store - by all means, shop there. There's no reason to attack anyone for their own preferences. Have a nice day.
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