The British Are Coming!

Tesco, the British retailing giant that many call that country’s Wal-Mart, has landed in the United States. The supermarket chain has watched the American market closely for years, and it saw an opening not in soccer field–size warehouses, but in corner neighborhood stores: Tesco calls the concept Fresh & Easy. A few opened this week in Southern California, and Tesco’s not stopping anytime soon: Plans call for 50 to open by the end of this year, 120 by the end of February, all in the Southwest.

To call the venture carefully planned is an understatement: According to a New York Times article on the company back in June, Tesco “sent executives to board with American families, watching what they eat and where they shop. The scouts have built a clandestine store inside a California warehouse to test the reactions of selected people, telling any busybodies who inquired that it was a movie set.”

This week, the Guardian sent a reporter to a new Fresh & Easy store, and the story’s an example of quietly bemused British journalism. The shoppers—“young Hispanic families and white retired people”—are described as stunned into silence by the Fresh & Easy offerings:

They stare blankly at the packaging with its tasteful coloured lettering. They look askance at the fish trapped in small plastic boxes set on crushed ice. They huddle around the individually wrapped croissants and the boxes of onion bhajis. This is not what they are used to, not in Hemet, not in the rest of southern California.

The horror! Meanwhile, an accompanying analysis of the store’s American competitors includes this ethnography-for-dummies description of Trader Joe’s: “Trader Joe’s is cleverly organised and fun. Its customers talk about it with real affection. A trip there is an adventure. You never know what you are going to find.”

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