Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


USA Today on the Whole Foods Market "Shopping Experience"

By Mark Matson for USA TODAY

Whole Foods (WFMI), the all-natural grocery chain beloved by soccer moms,
Hollywood starlets and the organically inclined, is about to stake its
future on a very different premise: shopping as showtime.

You don't need a ticket to enter the pulsating, almost-as-big-as-a-Wal-Mart
concept store that opened six days ago adjacent to its new headquarters
here. But you do need to wipe clean all preconceptions about grocery
shopping as drudgery. Call it a better-for-you food bazaar on organic
steroids. Or the grocery equivalent of Disney World for food junkies.
(Related photos: Making grocery shopping fun)

Whatever you call it, Whole Foods executives believe that the ideas in the
store - which is broken up into enticing, food-centric lands, à la Disney -
could have the kind of industry-shaking impact on grocery shopping that
Starbucks has had on coffee drinking. Whole Foods could help transform
grocery shopping into interactive theater.

"Americans love to eat. And Americans love to shop. But we don't like to
shop for food. It's a chore, like doing laundry," laments John Mackey, 51,
the sneaker-and-jeans-wearing founder of Whole Foods. "Whole Foods thinks
shopping should be fun. With this store, we're pioneering a new lifestyle
that synthesizes health and pleasure. We don't see a contradiction."

Whole Foods is bulking up at a time when many Americans are becoming more
food enamored and health conscious and are turning away from the local
supermarket that knows them only by their frequent-shopper number.

Whole Foods is waving goodbye to those smallish, 31,000-square-foot stores
and saying hello to 50,000-square-foot versions, 58 of which will be built
in the next four years. This, at a time when the rest of the industry is
actually shrinking its stores to an average 34,000 square feet, the Food
Marketing Institute estimates.

This showcase Whole Foods is 80,000 square feet. Executives won't say what
it cost, but supermarket real estate experts familiar with Whole Foods peg
it as high as $15 million, about twice the industry average.

What that investment bought: more room to wow shoppers - and more reasons
for them to dawdle. And, as always, all the food is free of artificial
preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners or hydrogenated fats.

The premise is simple: make grocery shopping fun. Just bring your platinum
card for a visit to:

- Candy Island, where you can dip a fresh strawberry in a flowing, chocolate
fountain for $1.59 each.

- Lamar Street Greens, where you can sit among the organic produce and have a
salad handmade for you to enjoy with a glass of Chardonnay.

- Fifth Street Seafood, a version of Seattle's Pike Place Market, where you
can have any of 150 fresh seafood items cooked, sliced, smoked or fried for
instant eating.

- Whole Body, where a massage therapist will work the kinks out with a
25-minute deep-tissue massage for $50.

Each of the sections is designed with self-contained architecture that is
curved inward to feel intimate - and to encourage shoppers to linger. Whole
Foods plans to plop some of these elements into future stores, from
Annapolis, Md., to Salt Lake City to Cincinnati. Many current stores also
will adopt pieces. It's a good bet the upper crust of the $450 billion
supermarket industry will try to follow.

The new store is light years from the tiny, Safer Way Natural Foods store
that Mackey founded 27 years ago in Austin. And a far cry from the
10,000-square-foot Whole Foods he co-founded two years later. The chain that
grew mostly by acquisition now is growing one store at a time.

Pleasure is woven into every crevice of the new flagship store. Such as the
guy who hawks fresh hot doughnuts - with no artificial ingredients, of
course. A walk-in beer cooler (bring your mittens) and 800 kinds of beer.
And 14 pastry chefs - any of whom will be happy to whip up a baked Alaska on
the spot.

"We're not Holy Foods," explains co-President Walter Robb, chief creator of
the new store. "We're Whole Foods."

It's not even just about food anymore. The chain's first all-organic
clothing section is here, with a private dressing room if you need to try on
that $44 robe.

And it's hard to miss the display of organic baby clothing. Does any kid
really need a $14 organic cotton onesie? Whole Foods thinks so. Most
conventional cotton is grown with fungicides and insecticides.

And who goes to the grocery store expecting to purchase an $89.99 vat of
almond butter? Or some candy S'mores covered in
apparently-not-so-bad-for-you chocolate at $16.99 a pound.

To be fair, a roll of the store's own 365 brand paper towels (recycled
paper, of course) fetches a modest 99 cents. And while you can easily spend
$49.99 on a bottle of wine among the 1,800 varieties it sells, you can also
find some for $4.99.

"They're not selling food," supermarket guru Phil Lempert says. "They're
selling life."

Not just a longer life - also a better one, particularly while you're in
the store. Store designers stretched hard to appeal to every sense.

Store offers temptation by design

The lighting for the produce is the kind used in art galleries. The music
is classical. Walk by the hot nut section and special fans waft that
tummy-teasing smell of roasting nuts your way. The store signs and displays
aren't plastic and particle board but a more eco-friendly, woodlike product
made from wheat straw.

"Whole Foods offers a psychological absolution of our excesses," says
Jerald Jellison, psychology professor at University of Southern California.
"After filling your cart with sinful wine, beer, cheese and breads, you
rationalize it's healthy, so that cancels out the negatives."

No one's laughing.

Certainly not the grocery industry. Whole Foods, which just turned 25, has
only 168 stores but has the industry's full attention. A typical supermarket
sells south of $400 per square foot; a Whole Foods exceeds $800. Sales at
the average market grew about 1% last year; the typical Whole Foods posted a
nearly 15% jump. The results "speak for themselves," says Mackey, who
expects Whole Foods' revenue to mushroom to $10 billion in 2010 from $3.9
billion in 2004.

Supermarket experts say Whole Foods has raised the bar for the industry.
"You can't just be a purveyor of meal ingredients anymore," says David
Merrefield, editorial director at Supermarket News. "Whole Foods brings
excitement to an industry that needs it."

So, other executives take note when Whole Foods changes the formula. Such as
making new stores Wi-Fi hot spots. Or plopping sit-down eateries in unusual
places, such as next to the lettuce bin. Or devoting up to two-thirds of the
space to more profitable, prepared foods.

"Traditional supermarkets don't have a driver to get customers in," says
Jason Whitmer, analyst at FTN Midwest. "Whole Foods has the one thing that's
lacking in the food retail business: creativity."

Most customers thrive on it, but a few are overwhelmed. "It's too much for
me," says Craig Johnson, 27, a store manager from Austin who bought
fresh-ground coffee and left. "They took it over the top." He plans to shop
at a smaller organic-food store, but he'll still stop by the new store on
occasion so his 2-year-old son, Reed, can use the outdoor playground.

But on the store's opening day, the mood of hundreds of shoppers who waited
in line just to get in was closer to adulation.

Lynn Larson is a self-described Whole Foods junkie. "I moved to Austin for
Whole Foods," brags the 42-year-old Pittsburgh native. She doesn't buy the
stereotype about the chain being only for the rich. For lunch, she sat at
the store's handmade salad eatery with a friend, munching a $6.95 Tropical
Green Salad - that was big enough for them to split.

That's lunch for less than $3.50 - cheaper than McDonald's - with the
guarantee of natural ingredients. "If you're a foodie," she says, "this
store is heaven."

Julie Danehy had a lot more than a low-budget lunch in mind. She waited with
her 14-month-old daughter, Sadie, for the store to open. Danehy, whose
second child is due in May, spends $250 on a typical Whole Foods trip.
That's pocket change compared with the $600 she spent weekly when she was a
personal chef for an organic-minded Austin family of four.

Debunking the Volvo stereotype

This stereotype of Whole Foods as "Whole Paycheck" - or a Volvo parking lot
- infuriates Mackey.

"Let's go down right now and count the Volvos in the parking lot," he says,
his face turning almost scarlet. "Many of our customers are so
environmentally conscious they don't even own cars."

But most are well-educated. "The common link is education, not income,"
Mackey says. "That correlates with income, but not perfectly."

Supermarket News recently named Mackey - who never finished college - the
seventh-most influential person in the food industry. That's two notches
ahead of Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and only a handful of notches below
top-ranked H. Lee Scott Jr., CEO of Wal-Mart Stores. Not that Mackey has any
desire to challenge Wal-Mart, which has an estimated 20% share of the
industry while Whole Foods is still well under 1%.

"We're not a religion. We're not a cult," Mackey says. "We don't think
you'll go to hell if you don't shop at Whole Foods."