A fresh round of speculation over the future of Fresh & Easy has been sparked after Tesco cut staff and opening hours at 33 of its 199 stores.

Tesco said the move was part of a drive to increase profitability at the stores, with chief executive Philip Clarke revealing earlier this year that Tesco would pull out of the US unless it was convinced it could make it a long-term proposition.

The change in hours sees stores move from 8am to 10pm opening to 9am to 8pm, which Tesco said was closer in line with rival retailers.

“We are adjusting opening hours in some stores,” said a spokesman. “We have always done this to better match trading hours by location, so it isn’t something new.

“We remain committed to reach profitability and these changes are about helping to achieve that.”

But the move came hot on the heels of cutbacks in Tesco’s US office staff and a slowdown in its planned rollout in the country. Clarke vowed to take a “more cautious approach” to the US venture, amid speculation in many quarters that it may yet pull the plug on the US – as it did in Japan.