Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Open Letter To Tesco

Dear Tesco,

Before we get started here, let me just say, I have very fond feelings towards you.  I would almost say that I love you, but wearing my heart on my sleeve in such a way would be terribly un-British of me; and even though I'm not British, I do try to avoid wearing my American-ness like a neon sign when I'm in London.  For example, I avoid asking people where Lie-ches-ter Square is.  

When I was 23 I went to London for the first time.  I fell in love with the UK (as well as an Inappropriate Boy), and three months later I was living in London on a BUNAC visa, working off the Strand, on John Adam Street, near the Embankment Gardens.  My office was also close to Covent Garden, and one of my favorite things to do was spend my lunch hour watching performers in the marketplace.  Being a broke student-type, I couldn't afford lunch in any of the pubs or restaurants there, but what I could do was pop in to the Tesco Metro on Bedford Street, a block away from the market, grab a sandwich and drink, and eat my lunch, either in the St. Paul's churchyard, or sitting on the steps facing the performers at the market.  

Several years later I met my now-husband online, and the first time I called him, I got his voicemail which said, "Hi, you've reached Jonathan Teysko..."  and his name was pronounced "Tesco."  I left a long, rambling message about various things, but I started off with, "hey, your name sounds like a British grocery store.  I know that because I used to go to that British grocery store.  And I have a club card to prove it."  On our first date I gave him my Tesco Club Card.  

On my last trip to the UK, at the Tesco near High Street Kensington, I bought one of your reusable bags with ladybugs, and it says, "Tesco: every little helps."  I use it like a purse sometimes.

So the point is, I love you, Tesco.  I admit it.  I really do.

Which is why I'm so disappointed at your current level of stupidity.  Yes, I said it.  You're being stupid.  

Given my affections for you, when I heard that you were opening up stores in California, my current home, under the moniker Fresh and Easy, I squealed with delight.  I would have my wonderful feeling of being in Tesco's without the hassle of going through airport security.  My husband and I immediately sought out a store that was open, about 40 miles from us.  We went in and marveled at how British it felt.  There was a lovely area with prepared entrees we could cook that night.  There was a gorgeous bakery.  The prepared sandwiches were almost like what they sell in the UK.  We were giddy.  

From that point on, I was a convert.  Before you opened stores up closer to me, I literally drove 40 miles to shop with you.  Each way.  And I told everyone what a great place you were.  I was happy that you made fresh food available in lower-income neighborhoods.  Sometimes when I would go in, I would hear families talk about how inexpensive your food was; how it enabled them to eat better.  I was there for the Britishness of it, but these people needed you.  They really needed you to be there.  You anchoring the mixed-use space at Adams and Central, in South Los Angeles, made fresh food available to huge swaths of neighborhood previously only served by fast food outlets. 

In 2011 Fresh and Easy opened a second South LA store, serving even more people.  While I was driving, I heard an interview on NPR with a local woman sitting at a bus stop, who was so excited that you were open.  She didn't get paid for a few more days, she said, so she wasn't going to go in yet.  But she was so happy you were there, because she was sick of spending money eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken.  She was so excited that there was a grocery store near her home where she could shop.

In short, Fresh and Easy became more than a grocery store.  It was almost a movement.  And I was right there, evangelically cheering it along.

Then last week I heard on the Marketplace Morning Report that you want to pull the plug on the Fresh and Easy experiment because it's not making enough money.


Here's where you get stupid.

First things first.  Have you noticed how fat Americans are?  We're fat because we eat a lot.  We eat a lot, in part, because we have giant refrigerators that hold enough food to feed half of Sussex and most of Kent.  Have you seen the size of American refrigerators?  Have you?  Please compare typical American and British refrigerators...

Have you thought about what we do with those refrigerators?  Well, speaking for the average American, once a week we go to the grocery store.  Or Costco.  We drive there in our giant gas-guzzling SUV's.  We load those huge cars up with bags and bags of groceries, generally huge bulk-sized groceries because it works out to be cheaper to buy 68 sticks of butter at once.  And we take them home and fill up our giant refrigerators.  From thence, we proceed to cook each day, only venturing out to procure more food a week or ten days later.

You come along with your small stores filled with food that is fresh and doesn't last that long (I've always had issues with that - a 6 pack of bagels, according to your use-by dates, lasts, on average, 4 days.  That leaves 2 extra bagels.  Good thing I toast my hubby's, so he doesn't notice).  You operate out of the mindset that we will shop like urban British people, or hunter/gatherers, stopping at the store on the way home from work to pick up dinner, and then perhaps going once or twice a week for a bigger shop, but still, only enough that you can physically carry home. (You mostly carry your groceries on public transport, right?  Do you know that I live in a huge metropolitan area - Greater Los Angeles - and I know many people who are completely unaware that this city even has public transport?)  

You also can't shop like us because you have smaller refrigerators.  And smaller kitchens in general, I might add.

So you come along with this entirely new way of looking at shopping - ie going to the store more often, getting things fresher, stopping for dinner on the way home and cooking it that's all very much of a small-refrigerator view of the world.  And, you know, it's cool.  We can learn that.  It's the way things are moving anyway,   People want more local food, fresher food, food that's not loaded with chemicals and preservatives.  We're hip with that. 

But you opened the bulk of your stores during and after 2008.  

Do you happen to remember what was going on in 2008?  Like, a giant economic meltdown?  Remember that?  

So along you come, with your new-fangdangled small-refrigerator way of doing things, in the middle of the worst economic crisis in living memory, when people are in a hunkering down sort of mindset, and you expect us to change enough to have completely embraced your way of doing things in only four years?   And when we don't change the entire way we've been doing things since the invention of the freeway, you want to pull the plug - you want to pull the plug on South LA, for example - without even giving us that much time to learn?  Four years is not a lot of time, my friend.  It's really not.  And here you are, getting all high-and-mighty about yourself, and how British grocery stores never succeed in the US, and how it's been a huge failure.

It's been less than four-freaking-years.

I mean, seriously.  

And I thought the US was obsessed with instantaneous results.

I mean, I know you have shareholders and all that.  But can you please just hold your freaking horses, for just a bit?  

Like, seriously.  

There are a lot of people who have come to depend on you.  Much of South Central, for one.  Tons of British ex-pats who love that they can get McVities and HP Sauce without going to a specialty grocer for another.  If everyone hasn't caught on yet, that's not a reason to completely pull out.  That's a reason to spend some time educating and marketing to your potential customers.

Can you have a little bit of patience, please?  

I mean, can I repeat, it's been less than four years.

Just get your knickers out of the twist that they're apparently in, and chill out.  Go do some yoga or something.  Spend some time educating us about why shopping fresher, more often, is the better way to do it.  I notice your youtube channel hasn't been updated in 8 months.  That might be a place to start.  There is enough goodwill towards you that I'm positive you could find an army of people to go out and preach the Fresh and Easy movement.  Maybe do some "refer a friend" vouchers.  I've been telling people about Fresh and Easy for years, but I've never once received an email from you asking me to.

Ooh, here's an idea straight out of that TV show where Gordon Ramsay tries to save struggling restaurants: why not, during the mid-afternoon lull, have people go around to the businesses that are close by with samples of the freshly prepared dinner options you have available?  Just show up at reception with steaming hot entree samples on paper plates, leave some discount vouchers or something, and I bet you'll have a stampede of office workers coming in after 5pm.  Do it often enough, and it will become a habit for them.

No charge for that, by the way.

Seriously, Tesco.  You need to tell your shareholders to quit whining and be a bit more patient.  This is a huge venture for you.  And I think you've done amazingly well considering the period during which you started.  This is the time to become even more evangelical; not throw in the towel completely.  


Thank you for listening.

Yours sincerely,

PS:  I just saw this article saying you're still going to expand this year, and  you're rejecting calls to pull out all together.  Well that's encouraging.  But I'm still worried...  

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