But in one crucial respect, Fresh & Easy is just like the vast majority of large American retailers: most employees work part-time, with its stores changing many of their workers' schedules week to week.
At its store here, just east of San Diego, Shannon Hardin oversees seven self-checkout stations, usually by herself. Typically working shifts of five or six hours, she hops between stations — bagging groceries, approving alcohol purchases, explaining the checkout system to shoppers and urging customers to join the retailer's loyalty program, all while watching for shoplifters.
"I like it. I'm a people person," said Ms. Hardin, 50, who used to work as an office assistant at a construction company until times went bad.
But after nearly five years at Fresh & Easy, she remains a part-time worker despite her desire to work full-time. In fact, all 22 employees at her store are part-time except for the five managers.
She earns $10.90 an hour, and with workweeks averaging 28 hours, her yearly pay equals $16,500. "I can't live on this," said Ms. Hardin, who is single. "It's almost impossible."
While there have always been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more than before as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full-time, reducing their pay and benefits.
"Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full-time to at least 70 percent part-time across the industry," said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.
No one has collected detailed data on part-time workers at the nation's major retailers. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut a million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs.
Technology is speeding this transformation. In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But workers' schedules have become far less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand.
"Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts," said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aéropostale and Pier One Imports.
Some employers even ask workers to come in at the last minute, and the workers risk losing their jobs or being assigned fewer hours in the future if they are unavailable.
The widening use of part-timers has been a bane to many workers, pushing many into poverty and forcing some onto food stamps and Medicaid. And with work schedules that change week to week, workers can find it hard to arrange child care, attend college or hold a second job, according to interviews with more than 40 part-time workers.
To be sure, many people prefer to work part time — for instance, college students eager for extra spending money and older people earning money for presents during the holiday season.
But in two leading industries — retailing and hospitality — the number of part-timers who would prefer to work full-time has jumped to 3.1 million, or two-and-a-half times the 2006 level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In retailing alone, nearly 30 percent of part-timers want full-time jobs, up from 10.6 percent in 2006. The agency found that in the retail and wholesale sector, which includes hundreds of thousands of small stores that rely heavily on full-time workers, about 3 in 10 employees work part-time.
Retailers and restaurants use so many part-timers not only because it gives them more flexibility, but because it significantly cuts payroll costs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part-time workers in service jobs received average compensation of $10.92 an hour in June, which includes $8.90 in wages plus benefits of $2.02. Full-time workers in that sector averaged 57 percent more in total compensation — $17.18 an hour, made up of $12.25 in wages and $4.93 in benefits. Benefit costs are far lower for part-timers because, for example, just 21 percent of them are in employer-backed retirement plans, compared with 65 percent of full-timers.
At the Fresh & Easy store here, Ms. Hardin is forever urging her boss to give her more hours, she said, but instead, "they turn around and hire more people." Some weeks, her boss gives her an extra shift when a co-worker is sick or on vacation.
Officials of Fresh & Easy, which is owned by Tesco, the largest supermarket company in Britain, declined to be interviewed. But the company noted that its entry-level pay was $10 an hour, substantially higher than at most retailers, with quarterly bonuses on top of that. Also, the company said it offered excellent benefits, including health insurance to anyone averaging more than 20 hours a week.
Ms. Hardin said her recent quarterly bonuses averaged less than $200, and while she appreciated the health insurance, she often could not afford the co-pays to see a doctor.
To supplement her income, she moonlights 15 or so weekends a year as a security guard at San Diego Chargers and San Diego State football games. But she still has such a hard time making ends meet, she said, that she has gone to the movies just three times in the last five years. Nor does she own a television.
"A couple of people offered me a used TV, but I can't afford cable," she said. "I have a tooth that's falling apart, but I can't afford the crown for it."