By  on November 16, 2007

The British retail invasion of the West Coast began last week when Tesco, the U.K.'s largest and the world's third largest retailer, opened six Fresh & Easy stores in Southern California.

This week, the expansion of Fresh & Easy moved to Nevada, when five stores bowed in the Las Vegas area. In total, 30 stores are expected to open this year, but the company is on pace to seed California, Nevada and Arizona with around 200 stores by 2009 at a cost of more than $500 million a year.

When the doors swung upon at the Southern California units Nov. 8, crowds rushed in, matching those seen at the region's H&M stores, where the Roberto Cavalli collection hit the racks the same day. Locals checked out Fresh & Easy's prices — many compared them and the selection with Trader Joe's with a mainstream supermarket spin — and competitors came in to size up their newest rival.

Stores measure around 10,000 square feet and contain approximately 3,500 products ranging from paper goods to prepared meals to personal care items. A nearly 1.5 million-square-foot distribution center in Riverside, Calif., serves Fresh & Easy units.

Fresh & Easy's layout, distinguished by bold signage, wide aisles and carefully spaced merchandise, was informed by Tesco's extensive research of Americans' shopping habits. Under the direction of Tim Mason, chief executive officer of Fresh & Easy, based in El Segundo, Calif., the research reportedly reached into consumers' homes and stretched over a year.

"We've found customers piece together their weekly shopping trip by shopping many different stores, so we put together a format to simplify customer's lives," said Mason in a statement.

The personal care assortment at one Los Angeles location was housed in a long aisle rimming the side of the store close to cash registers. It contained staples from soaps to shampoos to toothpaste. Brands featured include VO5, Suave, Pantene, Neutrogena, Garnier Fructis, Jergens, Ultra Vital Care and Got2B. A private label natural line called bnatural featured a hand cream for $3.89 and a scrub for $9.99.

Fresh & Easy hasn't stepped onto Wal-Mart's turf without facing controversies similar to this country's largest retailer. Community organizations have criticized Fresh & Easy for avoiding poor neighborhoods in search of wealthy consumers, and labor groups have dinged the retailer for not hiring union members. Outside its Los Angeles unit on opening day, a small gathering of protestors flashed a sign at cars passing by.Fresh & Easy has tried to head off the opposition in its marketing blitz by touting its environmental efforts — the roof at its distribution center has solar installation — and its fair treatment of workers. Entry-level employees start at $10 an hour and are eligible for medical coverage after 90 days, with Fresh & Easy paying 75 percent of the cost.

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