Whole Foods Serves Lefty Customers Well, Becomes Large and Successful, Lefty Customers Leave Because Success Signifies 'Straying From Roots'

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Feb 28, 2007 1:29 PM

Brilliant.

So, we'll all enjoy the Whole Foods and the delicious fresh, organic foods it brings us at reasonable prices while you guys find another rootsy, local store at which to shop, which with any luck, will be just mediocre enough to prevent its "straying from its roots" by becoming, you know, successful.

THEY came together in what seemed like a perfect marriage: earnestformer hippies and Whole Foods, the clean, well-lighted version of theold natural food store. The chain’s stores were filled with organicfoods and socially responsible ingredients. They were decorated withpastoral scenes of the local farmers who sold to them; signageexplained why local and organic are better for the environment.

Thefood may have been more expensive, but for many shoppers it was worthit. Since opening its first store in Austin, Tex., in 1980, Whole Foodshas grown from a small business to a mega-chain with 193 stores,capping its rise last week with a deal to acquire the 110 stores of itslargest rival, Wild Oats.

Well, Heaven forfend. You know why a food store might expand from one store to 193? Because it's a good business model producing a good product that people want to purchase. So, what's the complaint?

Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, a retail foodconsulting firm, said that Whole Foods has drifted toward the middle,which has made the store more popular with a broader range of people.Many of today’s Whole Foods shoppers are more interested in preparedfoods than in whether the eggs are organic. But that carries adownside. “The folks truly devoted to organic and natural can’t getthem all in Whole Foods and have to go somewhere else,” he said.

The "middle," where there are more customers to serve. If the store did not move toward the middle, find more customers, and serve them, the chain would lose money, and be forced to lay off workers and raise prices-- two things to which the very same lefties would object as well.

“There is a segment of shoppers,” he added, “who have moved ahead ofWhole Foods. They think it is important to have a smaller carbonfootprint and to want to help small farmers.” He said that John Mackey,the chief executive officer and co-founder of Whole Foods, “is laggingbehind his leading shoppers.”
That segment of shoppers is smaller than other segments of shoppers, however, and given that they're worrying about their carbon footprint while they're grocery shopping, inherently more trouble to serve well than normal customers. I'm not surprised the cost-benefit analysis comes out in favor of serving normal people who like good, fresh food rather than Joe Enviro-Cause-of-the Week.

To folks like that, there's always something to make them shop elsewhere. There's always some new orthodoxy to violate. For instance, Whole Foods buys organic, but not from small enough organic farmers, apparently:

Last year the author Michael Pollancalled Mr. Mackey hypocritical in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” formarketing organic and sustainable values while buying most of theproduce from agribusiness giants like Earthbound Farm and Cal-Organic.
Whole Foods buys dairy products from a co-op of organic family farmers, but there are concerns that some of the cows producing some Whole Foods products aren't given enough pasture time:

Whole Foods buys its private label milk from Cropp, a cooperative oforganic family farmers who receive high marks from the CornucopiaInstitute, a nonprofit agricultural policy research group, for humanetreatment of organic cows.

But despite continuing criticism thatHorizon Organic gives its cows very little access to pasture, WholeFoods continues to sell Horizon’s products.

Whole Foods is going to inevitably experience growing pains, and there's almost always a trade-off when a chain gets bigger-- lower prices but less attentive, personal service. But don't you think a lot of the anti-Whole Foods sentiment comes from the fact that the urbane, city-dwelling, organic, soy lefties who shop there don't cotton to their feel-good grocery store becoming a Big-Box that can get high-quality goods to multitudes of people at lower prices? I'd be willing to wager that many of the formerly dedicated Whole Foods shoppers referenced in the article just don't like that whole capitalistic success thing Whole Foods has going on, even if it does allow the chain to employ many thousands of people, sustain many thousands of earthy family farmers, and serve many thousands more customers. 

Also, the Whole Foods, granola lefty demographic is notorious for moving the goalposts. As I said, there's always a new orthodoxy to violate. Why should Whole Foods bother being berated for the relative social conscience of its blueberry selection when it can make money off of people who won't bother berating them for it?

There's a line to walk, but I'd say moving toward the middle while maintaining the food quality and the cred it got them in the first place is probably not a bad move. Another store will pop up in a couple months that will make lefties happy by virtue of its smallness, and as soon as it proves itself quality enough to grow, lefties will abandon it for another small store.

Wasn't that in an episode of South Park?

I think my favorite part of the article is this crack investigation by the NYT staff:

In tours of eight Whole Foods stores in the Washington, D.C., area andin New York City and suburbs over the last several months, otherproblems suggested inattention to detail. One-third of the Yukon Goldpotatoes in one display had turned green; some sweet potatoes wereshriveled; cherry tomatoes in net bags were wrinkled; net bags oforganic lemons contained several that were past their prime; andpackaged haricots verts were brown. Six containers of one brand ofyogurt available for purchase in the Bethesda, Md., store on Jan. 21were stamped with a “use by” date of Dec. 28.
The nation's most prestigious paper is reduced to investigative melon-squeezing. (Hmm, wasn't that in an episode of South Park, too? Mr. Garrison, shame on you!)

Grocery stores are big places. You can find a lot of flawed products if that's what you're sniffing for. Also, because Whole Foods does carry fresher, more enviro-friendly produce and products, they're more likely not to have the preservatives that keep goods in regular grocery stores fresher and flawless for longer. So, isn't the NYT using the store's attentiveness to lefty needs against it, here?

Whole Foods didn't talk to the Times for the article, which seems like a big mistake to me. The chain is doing its best to serve a lot of people while upholding its values. The article lists several ways it's doing that, so why not get a spokesperson on the phone to extoll those efforts?

Signs have gone up in the company’s markets extolling the virtues oflocally grown produce; foragers have been hired to seek out localfarmers; the company has offered $10 million a year in low-interestloans to help small farmers produce more and stand-alone stores willopen their parking lots to farmers’ markets on Sundays.

So, shop at Whole Foods, y'all. It's good, and the Greens can skulk down to whatever tiny store is the new hotness, where they can pay double what we pay for Whole Foods goodness.

Also, lesser-known fact that makes lefties unhappy-- Whole Foods is in the forefront when it comes to consumer-driven health care, like HSAs. And, it's working for them:

According to The Wall Street Journal anda company spokesperson, the initial results at Whole Foods have beendramatic. Last year, according to Whole Foods' figures, overallmedical-claim costs fell 13% from the year before and hospitaladmissions per 1,000 employees fell 22%. The company estimates that itspent about the same amount per employee on health insurance in 2003,including deposits into the new employee accounts, as it did under itsold plan in 2002. Nationally, health-insurance premiums for a family offour went up an average of 13.9% during that same period, according toa Kaiser/Health Research & Educational Trust survey.

I'm a nerd, but I've always had a soft spot for the store since I read that a couple years ago.