The Mediocrity of Whole Foods

It struck me as ironic that Amazon bought Whole Foods just as the store was reaching the lowest point in its history and showing how superficial its understanding was of the customers who frequented it. Natural food stores were a late sixties and 1970’s invention. The premise then was quality, quality, quality in organic foods and healthy fruits and vegetables and breads and so on. Things like salt content and sugar levels were monitored and the availability of alternatives, celebrated. New foods were introduced to broaden the market and local produce was promoted. What happened? Today, Whole Foods is misnamed. There is no core mission other than making money and although it continues to have some of the foods it once celebrated, these are hidden behind prepared meals and sandwiches and pizza and other traditional strategies of food preparation/sales where the emphasis is on speed, framed by turnover and quantity i.e. fast foods. 

Customers have been drifting away for years. The same non-organic apples cost dollars less per pound at conventional supermarkets. The same dairy products are cheaper and everything from the olives to the breads are always more expensive at Whole Foods. The company stopped taking its customers seriously and this is evidenced by the weaknesses in their supply chain. They can’t keep up with in demand items and don’t properly restock their bulk goods. They rely on the same goods especially fruits where even in season means nothing both from a price point and quality point of view. 

Why did this happen? The stresses of retailing not withstanding, how did a once successful model turn into a shadow of itself? Leadership may be the core issue. But loss of direction and a misunderstanding of its mission may be the real cause. In general, so called healthy foods are available everywhere. And, Whole Food’s percentage of the overall food market is tiny. Its capacity to dictate led alone lead market trends was minuscule. But, it could have maintained its originality and uniqueness if it had stuck to its original idea which was to promote and support healthy eating and healthy foods. It could have innovated and supported new supply chains among small farmers and producers. It could have maintained an open and transparent response to complaints. 

An argument can be made that Whole Foods is a creature of the market it serves, millenials wanting a quick fix and easy access to prepared foods. I don’t buy that.  

Rather, its role is both as a provider and teacher. The stores need to be learning experiences defined as much by the way foods are displayed as by the choices made for the benefit of customers. There needs to be a continuous feedback loop with early warning signals when things go wrong. Most of all the stores need to encourage better foods, slower eating, a more wholistic approach to diets and a visible concern for customers willing to spend more for the added value. Amazon are you listening?