As our readers know, we've been reporting on and writing extensively about Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market format. In particular, we've been among the first publications to break news about the retailer's Northern California plans. (Read our December 5 story about Fresh & Easy store developments in Northern California and the Bay Area here.)
We also were one of the first publications to report that Wal-Mart has had a high-level team in the San Francisco Bay Area working on the development of two small format retail stores--one a small footprint, convenience-oriented grocery store similar in concept to Tesco's Fresh & Easy markets, and the other a stand-alone health and wellness-style format which would feature an in-store health and wellness clinic and sell a wide range of health-oriented goods, including natural products. (Wal-Mart has trademarked two retail store names, "City Thyme" and "Field & Vine," as we reported here.)
We named the Wal-Mart small format project--along with the Fresh & Easy format and other new age convenience-style stores from the likes of Giant Eagle (Giant Eagle Express) and Whole Foods Market (Whole Foods Market Express; a prototype store being developed in Boulder, Colorado)--"Small Marts," a play on words combining the Wal-Mart name and the shortened name often used for a retail market or store.
In our September 6, 2007 piece, The invasion of the "Small Marts": Will there be a small format revolution by U.S. retailers, we provided an analysis of what Tesco's Fresh & Easy format could mean in terms of other food retailers following a similar path in the U.S. In addition to discussing Giant Eagle's, (Express) Whole Foods' (Express) and Wal-Mart's developments, we also talked about Pleasanton, California-based Safeway Stores, Inc. It's CEO, Steve Burd, said the grocer is watching Tesco closely, and researching the Fresh & Easy format, it's potential locations, and possible competitive pressures on the retailer's Western U.S. operations, especially in California. (Read more here.)
In the "Invasion of the Small Marts'" piece mentioned above, and in all of our writing on the issue, we've discussed how one market in particular, Northern California and particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, will be the most competitive and difficult for Tesco with its Fresh & Easy stores thus far--compared to Southern California, Nevada and Arizona--where the British grocer now has about 20 stores open.
Among the reasons for this increased competition, we've sighted Safeway Stores--the fact that it's the food retailing market share leader in the region, that the Bay Area is home to it's corporate headquarters, and of course the small format research project articulated by CEO Burd in response to the entering of Fresh & Easy stores in the region.
Additionally, we've discussed the major expansion efforts in Northern California (focused in the Bay Area) by Whole Foods Market, Inc., which plans to build 20-25 large supernatural supermarkets in the region (in addition to the 20-plus it already has) in the next five years, according to former Whole Foods' Northern California president Anthony Gilmore, who left his position with the grocer in October to join Safeway Stores as a director of new store development.
Safeway moving from research to action in small format store development
According to a story today in The Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, CEO Burd and Safeway are moving from the research phase of their smaller format food store project to an action phase. That's right, according to the publication's sources (and confirmed by a number of our own), Safeway Stores is seeking as many as five locations in the San Jose area for stores of about 20,000 square feet, which would feature extensive selections of fresh, prepared foods, Tesco's "stock-in-trade" in it's Fresh & Easy format. At 20,000 square feet, these smaller-format stores would be less than half the size of Safeway's new Lifestyle stores, which average 45,000 to 65,000 square feet, but about double the size of Tesco's Fresh & Easy markets.
According to the Business Journal story, Safeway has retained Cornish & Carey Commercial Real Estate Brokerage to find locations for the five stores in and around the San Jose area. This is the same Bay Area region where we reported Tesco has inked a deal for it's first store in the Bay Area, on Bird Avenue in San Jose, and likely will locate as many as ten to twelve stores in the city and it's immediate environs.
Word is Safeway has Cornish & Carey trying to lock up a number of former Albertsons' supermarket buildings in the San Jose area for its new small format food stores. This is interesting since Tesco's Bird Avenue location is a former Albertsons' store, which the grocer closed a couple years ago along with a number of others in Northern California. Tesco has been targeting these empty Albertsons' stores throughout the Bay Area as locations for its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets.
Safeway is a major commercial real estate player in the Bay Area, with almost 300 stores. In other words, it's a priority customer for shopping center and other commercial real estate managers. As such, it looks like the grocer is playing some store location hardball with Tesco in terms of that retailer's sight search. In the Business Journal piece, local commercial real estate sources give Safeway the thumbs up in terms of being the preferred tenant for any of the vacant Albertsons' stores. As we've reported however, Tesco already has a number of store locations locked-up in the Bay Area, with numerous other sights in negotiation.
As mentioned above, some months ago before Tesco opened a single Fresh & Easy store, CEO Burd said Safeway was preparing itself for the British grocer's small format stores, which combine basic private label and nationally branded grocery items with prepared foods offerings. Burd said, among other things, he believes Safeway has an advantage in that the grocer is a well-known brand in California (especially in the Bay Area), especially in the prepared foods niche. In fact, Safeway has been perfecting it's fresh, prepared foods over the last five years in it's Lifestyle format stores, including branding the items with an upscale flavor, using such names as Safeway Signature and Safeway Select.
Along with the extensive prepared foods initiatives in-store in its Lifestyle format supermarkets, Safeway purchased a restaurant in San Jose last summer, where it's been testing various prepared foods entrees it wants to sell in its stores. Ownership of the restaurant, called Citrine New World Bistro, was announced last month by CEO Burd. It's an innovation incubator, and consumer test kitchen for a variety of prepared foods that observers expect will be offered in the new, smaller format food stores.
Anthony Gilmore, the former president of Whole Foods' Northern California division also joined Safeway in October as a director for new store and format development. While in charge of Whole Foods' Northern California operations, Gilmore lead the development of a number of innovative formats, resulting in new stores opening this year. Among them are the European Food Hall format store in Oakland, which opened in October, and the Northern California flagship store in the Silicon Valley city of Campbell, which features a food and wine bistro in-store, along with the supernatural grocers first mini day spa, among other innovative features.
Gilmore was hired in large part to bring that experience in retail food store format innovation to Safeway, where he began his retail grocery career as a courtesy clerk. He's involved in the new small format store development, including the prepared foods offerings, as well as in another new development for Safeway--the design of a "next generation" Lifestyle format, which is part Safeway Lifestyle stores, part Whole Foods Market. As we reported three months ago, Safeway is planning to build this new, Whole Foods-like store in Pleasanton, where it's corporate headquarters is located. (More on this development soon.)
Turf war battle, small format competition could get even hotter in Bay Area
As we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, and first wrote about in August and again in September and November, a high-level team from Wal-Mart was in the Bay Area for some time researching and developing two small retail formats for potential implementation by the retailer. These two formats, a small-footprint grocery market and health and wellness store, would allow Wal-Mart to enter into markets such as the San Francisco Bay Area where they've been unsuccessful in getting permits to build Supercenters do to objections by city officials, community groups and the retail clerks union, which represents workers in nearly every Bay area supermarket.
We've continued to follow this story closely. However, our commercial real estate and industry sources in the region haven't heard much in the last couple months. Here's what we know: First, as reported earlier, Wal-Mart has trademarked two trade names for use on "unspecified retail stores." These names are "City Thyme" and "Field & Vine." Both these names sound like they would fit a retail food store but we can't independently confirm that, nor is Wal-Mart confirming it for us.
Second, we know the Wal-Mart team is no longer in the Bay Area. Our sources told us the group completed their project, at least the on-site aspects of it. We have been told, but can't confirm, that a report on the small format research has been given to Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott.
We've also been told by multiple sources that, in terms of the small format grocery market, there's a division within the team in terms of going forward with it or just focusing on the retailer's existing smaller format grocery store, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. These stores average about 48,000 square feet in size, and are a full-department supermarket. Although much smaller than a Supercenter, they aren't considered "small format" in terms of the supermarket industry. Rather, they're about average size in terms of a stand-alone grocery store.
Regarding the small format health and wellness stores, we've been told Wal-Mart is more excited about their potential, especially the combining of in-store health clinics with the natural, health and wellness-oriented product mix. (Wal-Mart is putting an increasing number of health clinics in its Supercenter stores.) Beyond that, we don't currently have any further specific information we're comfortable reporting in terms of that format's status.
We do know Tesco's rapid rollout of it's Fresh & Easy stores has taken Wal-Mart a bit by surprise, and that the retailer is concerned about Tesco's taking food dollar market share away from the retailer in California. Wal-Mart has only been able to build about half of the number of Supercenters in the state as it planned to build to date, do to the highly-organized campaigns against the big box stores throughout California. As a result, this fact has caused the retailer to lower its projections considerably in terms of the share of retail food sales it planned to have in the Golden State.
Wal-Mart recently announced it would build two Neighborhood Markets in Southern California early next year, its first in the state. This has lead to speculation that the retailer will rollout this format as a way to increase its retail food dollar market share in California as an alternative to its original Supercenter strategy. There's less organized objection to this Wal-Mart format.
If Wal-Mart either rolls out its Neighborhood Market stores in a big way in California--including Northern California and the Bay Area,which is logical as that's where the strongest Supercenter objections are--or goes forward with its "Small Mart" grocery market format, this will add even more heat to the smaller food store competitive landscape in the region. Not only will Safeway be challenging Tesco with it's 20,000 square foot format, but Wal-Mart could pose a serious challenge to both with either its 48,000 square foot Neighborhood Markets or the yet to be officially announced smaller format grocery market (the "Wild Thyme" or "Food & Vine" concepts).
As we've written extensively, Northern California and the Bay Area will be a competitive and operational challenge for Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets. It also seems the region's going to become a small format food retailing laboratory of sorts as a result of Fresh & Easy's entry into the market next year. Our sources tell us there are a number of other retailers looking at the small format food retailing opportunities for them in the region as well. The small format turf battle and competitive environment in the region is just beginning--and will heat-up even more soon.