Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Retail Memo: Wal-Mart and Safeway Stores Could 'Box' Tesco in With New Small Format Stores

Analysis & Opinion: The small format food retailing revolution has just gotten even hotter in the Western U.S, with Wal-Mart Inc.'s plans to open its new MarketSide stores in Arizona. And in California, Safeway Stores continues with its plans to open new, small format stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Meanwhile, Tesco is being pretty quiet about the new developments, but continues to open a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market store nearly every other week.

The news that mega-retailer Wal-Mart will build four (to start) 20,000 square foot grocery markets named "MarketSide" in the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan region adds new, additional competitive pressures to Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market small format stores.

These Wal-Mart "Small Marts," which at 20,000 square feet are about 5,000 to 7,000 square feet bigger than Fresh & Easy stores but half the size of the retailer's Wal_Mart Neighborhood Market format, are likely to be similar in format to British grocer Tesco's small format grocery markets.

Based on what we currently know--from published reports and additional information from our sources--the small format stores will offer a mix of basic groceries, prepared foods, and specialty items. This mix is similar to Fresh & Easy's. At this point, we aren't sure what else the "MarketSide" stores will merchandise, but are rather sure they will feature some version of this basic grocery, fresh foods mix, along with whatever else the stores will sell.

As out readers know, we reported recently that Pleasanton, California-based Safeway Stores, Inc. has secured leases in the San Francisco Bay Area region of San Jose for five new, small format stores the retailer plans to open later this year. While we don't yet know the name of these Safeway small format stores, we have fairly good information they too will offer a mix of basic groceries and prepared foods.

Neither of these developments are good news for Tesco's Fresh & Easy. Just two months ago, Fresh & Easy stood as basically the lone food chain pioneer in this hybrid small format, basic grocery/fresh foods merchandising arena. Had this remained the case, Fresh & Easy would have had plenty of time to rollout its numerous planned stores in California, Arizona and Nevada, perfected its format, and not had to share the media limelight with two powerhouse, US-based retailers--Wal-Mart and Safeway--as they are having to do now.

This won't be the case however. Wal-Mart's initial opening later this year of four stores in Arizona, all four in areas where there are Fresh & Easy stores, and Safeway's opening later this year of five stores in the San Jose region in Northern California, will put a competitive check on Tesco. (Tesco plans to start opening Fresh & Easy stores in Northern California later this year. The grocer also will build a distribution center in Stockton, in Northern California, to serve up to 50 stores in the region it wants to build in the next two years.

Both Wal-Mart and Safeway are major retail brand names. Safeway, which is based in Northern California, will have a major marketing advantage with its small format stores against Fresh & Easy. Safeway also already has all the supply-chain and marketing infrastructure in place to serve these new, small format stores. The grocer operates about 300 supermarkets in Northern California, including numerous stores in and around San Jose. It's corporate headquarters is about 30 miles from the San Jose region. It also has a distribution facility nearby.

Wal-Mart already has a number of Supercenters in Arizona, including in the Phoenix region where it will open the small format "MarketSide" stores. The chain, like Safeway has all of it's logistics in place, to say the least. As the world's largest company and retailer, Wal-Mart will have no problem matching Tesco on selection, price and marketing muscle. Arizona also is one of the best food markets for Wal-Mart. Opening it's first small format stores there is, in addition to going head-to-head against Fresh & Easy, a smart move in general for the retailer.

Like a game of chess on a chessboard, Wal-Mart and Safeway have the ability to box Fresh & Easy in: Wal-Mart in Arizona (to start) and Safeway in Northern California (to start). Safeway also has numerous supermarkets (over 400) in Southern California, where its Vons' stores are the number two food dollar market share leader, just behind Kroger Co.'s Ralph's. Further, the grocery chain also has a retail presence in Nevada.

Safeway already is looking to Southern California to possibly locate some of the new, small format stores, and can do so easily as it has the same fully-developed infrastructure it has in Northern California. (Safeway has this fully-developed supply-chain ability for the entire Western USA. For that matter, for the entire USA.)

Wal-Mart can go anywhere. The mega-retailer actually developed the "MarketSide" stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a team of executives spent months developing the format. Expect stores in Northern California (urban and suburban stores), Southern California and elsewhere. The global giant knows no geographical--or supply chain--limitations.

So, just a couple months ago, the United Kingdom's biggest grocer was sitting alone on top of the small format, hybrid grocery/prepared foods format in the U.S. Today, just a blink of the eye later, there are two major competitors--the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, and the number one food retailer in the Western USA, Safeway.

The result of these two retail players getting into the game in the Western U.S. means Tesco's mission has just become even harder than it already was. Creating a completely new enterprise--Fresh & Easy, a new format, supply chain and all else, is hard enough in and of itself. For Tesco to now operate and grow the venture with Wal-Mart and Safeway on its heels will be in many ways an even bigger challenge that those original red-coated British invaders faced when they tried to rest the former colony away from a bunch of upstart Americans who wanted their own, sovereign country.

Tesco is good though, and they shouldn't be discounted. They've built their Tesco Express small format chain into the best in Europe. But Wal-Mart and Safeway are equally good, especially in their food retailing homeland. Of course, Wal-Mart isn't the most nimble of food retailers. It will be interesting to see if the mega-retailer can make the transition from big box, mass food retailing to small format, niche retailing. They've done so to a certain degree with their 45,000 square foot Neighborhood Market format. However, at best they have thus far earned a B- with that format.

Wal-Mart has just hired a veteran of UK food retailing, Jack Sinclair, to run its U.S. grocery operations. Sinclair isn't just any veteran of UK food retailing. He spent many years with Tesco, and knows the British retailer's operations (including small format) well. For those who think Wal-Mart is merely dabbling with the "MarketSide" format and stores, the hiring of Sinclair should lay those thoughts to rest.

Safeway has become as nimble a retailer that exists in the U.S. (and internationally for that matter) these days. The grocer has turned its retail business around with its upscale Lifestyle format. It continues to innovate with the format with its new stores, adding new departments and in-store features.

Safeway also has what is perhaps the most successful premium and organic store brand in the business today, with its O' Organics grocery and fresh foods brand. Think we might see some O' Organics brand products in the new, small format Safeway stores?

Safeway also owns an upscale restaurant in the San Jose area, and has been using it to develop innovative, fresh prepared foods items which we believe will find their way into these new, small format markets. The small format store business isn't something Safeway just thought of. The grocer started a research project targeting Tesco's Fresh & Easy venture at least two years ago, and has been working on its small format development program for at least that long.

As we've been writing about here for nearly six months, there is a small format food store revolution happening in the U.S.--and in Europe and Canada. Doing battle are not only Tesco, and now Wal-Mart and Safeway Stores, but a host of others. German grocer Aldi plans on building as many as 100 of its no frills, price-impact, small format grocery stores a year in the U.S. for the next few years. The retailer already has nearly 900 of the little, no frills discount grocery stores in the country. Aldi also owns California-based small format specialty grocer Trader Joe's, which is another major competitor for Fresh & Easy.

Giant Eagle supermarkets also is building more of its Giant Eagle Express small format stores, which are similar to a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market store.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. will open its prototype Whole Foods Express later this year in a former Wild Oats store in Boulder, Colorado. Look for these Express stores from Whole Foods to have lots of fresh, prepared foods items, especially grab-and-go, high-quality but convenient offerings. Also, don't be surprised if some of these Whole Foods' Express stores pop-up in California, one of the supernatural grocers best markets--and one of its top target regions for store development and growth over the next five years.

There's much more going on in this small format revolution. [You can read many of the pieces we've done by typing-in the key words: small format, small format revolution, small format retail food stores, small format grocers, Small Marts, Fresh & Easy and similar phrases in the search box at the top of the blog. Type just one phrase at a time in though. Also use the tags at the end of this piece as search words.]

Meanwhile, the small format revolution's battlefield is becoming a bit more complex--and more intense--for Tesco's Fresh & Easy.

Wal-Mart and Safeway, independently, are flanking the British grocer from two sides--Wal-Mart in Arizona, Safeway in California. We will see one or both of these retailers converge on the middle--Nevada--soon as well. Of course, the big battle, and the big market, is California, south and north. It's a state of nearly 40 million people, which is bigger than most European countries. We suggest you'll see Tesco, Wal-Mart and Safeway battling it out with small format stores in California beginning later this or in early 2009.

The revolution has just started though. Don't rule Tesco's Fresh & Easy out. But don't underestimate Wal-Mart and Safeway either, especially when it comes to not wanting to loose food dollar market share in their home country--and in Safeway's case, on it's home turf.

This revolution won't likely be televised. But we will continue to report on it and write about and analyze it here for our readers. Stay tuned.

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