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Fresh & Easy and Sweetbay

In her famously cheerful book “On Death and Dying,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One troubled grocery chain on the West Coast appears to be entering stage one, while another troubled grocery chain on the Gulf Coast has made it all the way to stage five.

Nearly two months after its British owners all but threw in the towel on Fresh & Easy (read: “‘Whole Foods Quality With Walmart Pricing’ Doesn’t Quite Work Out”), the California chain is putting on a cheerful – and defiant – face. In early December, parent company Tesco said it was conducting a “strategic review” of the money-losing chain, with “all options under consideration.” Many took that to mean a sale or complete closure is in the cards.

But Fresh & Easy seems to be taking it in stride. It announced today that it’s launching a new advertising campaign, with the slogan “Still Fighting the Good Food Fight.”

“We know there’s still a lot of interest and curiosity around the future of Fresh & Easy,” reads a note posted today on the store’s Facebook page. “We appreciate the love. While we don’t know exactly what the outcome of this strategic review process will be, we want to assure you we don’t have plans to close stores and we’re confident Fresh & Easy can continue to be your favorite neighborhood market.”

“We don’t have plans to close stores” – try telling that to Tesco. While it may be technically true that there are currently no plans to close any stores, it’s certainly one of the options Tesco is considering. It’s possible Tesco will partner with another company and keep all the stores open, but after spending $1.6 billion to launch and keep Fresh & Easy afloat, Tesco may not have the stomach for it anymore. The “strategic review” has already resulted in job losses – earlier this month, about 50 real estate, store design and recruitment jobs were cut in the head office in Los Angeles, which suggests at the very least that Fresh & Easy isn’t going to be expanding any further.

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The website Fresh & Easy Buzz, which has followed the chain closely, was unimpressed with the statement and called it a potential “PR mistake”. Since Tesco has said that closing stores, or the entire chain, is indeed an option, an announcement that the store isn’t going anywhere could come across as disingenuous. Plus, “Tesco has a history of closing Fresh & Easy stores,” Fresh & Easy Buzz tweeted, noting that 25 locations have closed over the past couple of years. And “all but about 40 of the 200 stores are losing money.”

If nothing else, the announcement helped to cheer up Fresh & Easy’s fans. In the hours after its posting, Fresh & Easy’s Facebook message got nearly 2,000 likes, plus hundreds of shares and comments. Most of the comments were along the lines of, “Please don’t close!” A decision about the chain’s future is expected by April.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, devotees of Florida-based Sweetbay have passed through denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and have landed squarely in acceptance. That grocery chain, also owned by a European company (Belgium-based Delhaize, in this case), announced two weeks ago that it would be shutting down a third of its 105 stores (read: “We’re Closing, But We Care – Sweetbay to Shut Down a Third of Its Stores”). Since then, a pall has fallen over even the remaining stores, as the chain’s once-active Facebook page has fallen silent, and all evidence of the soon-to-be-closed stores has already been scrubbed from Sweetbay’s website.

St. Petersburg, more than most cities, took a painful journey through each and every stage of grief. The Midtown community fought for years for their own supermarket, and Sweetbay was welcomed with great fanfare back in 2005. It was credited with helping to revive the low-income community. So news of its closing hit residents – and city leaders – hard. The mayor met with Sweetbay company officials on Tuesday, in a last-ditch effort to convince them to stay. That effort was not successful. The store lost money from the moment it opened, Mayor Bill Foster said he was told, and the chain’s decision was final. “Of the over 200 stores that this chain has closed in the past couple years,” he told Bay News 9, “not a single one was ever reopened or the decision reversed.”

So residents have been flocking to the Midtown store, and dozens of other closing Sweetbay locations, in search of bargains. The stores are now priced at 50% off, and many shoppers were reportedly loading up several shopping carts worth of products. “$272 worth of groceries for $136. Can’t beat that,” one shopper bragged. Actually you could beat that, if you could use coupons. But no coupons are being accepted, and the store’s weekly circular does not apply to the closing stores. Which is a shame, because one of the frequent “$10 off your purchase of $50 or more” coupons appears in this week’s ad – at the remaining Sweetbay stores.

Ironically, it’s coupons precisely like that one, that some observers say have helped to sink Fresh & Easy (read: “Total-Purchase Coupons: Divine, or Disastrous?”). If Sweetbay wants to keep its remaining stores alive, it might need to rethink its strategy. Otherwise St. Petersburg and Fresh & Easy won’t be the only ones trying to navigate the five stages of grief.

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