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A grocery experience from heaven

Ever since Piggly Wiggly (true name) launched the world’s first ‘self service grocery store’ in Memphis in 1916, the game for supermarkets has been about increasing speed and efficiency. The hermetically sealed outcome, however, has been that a trip to the supermarket for many shoppers is not a want to, but a have to… not something to look forward to, but a task to dread. “That’s completely the opposite of what food is,” said John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, in Fortune Magazine.

“Food, arguably, over our lifetimes, even more than sex, probably gives us more total pleasure than anything else, and yet people don’t like to go to the grocery store. My gosh! Isn’t that an interesting paradox?”

And so supermarkets all over the world are changing, becoming more market-like. Adding sushi bars, juice bars and cafes. Baking their bread. Introducing more organic and fresh produce than ever before. Trying to put flavor back into food, and turn a chore into something more.

To no small extent, the reinvention of supermarkets has been influenced by Whole Foods Market, the 34 year old US natural and organically-based supermarket chain that, according to the aforementioned Fortune article, “is taking over America”.

With US$12.9 billion in annual sales, 375 stores, and 7 million customer visits a week, Whole Foods is not a behemoth, but a growing force.

Whole Foods started life in 1980 as ‘Safer Way’, more of a “health food hippie hangout” that even John Mackey admits didn’t do a lot of business. But over the years, both Whole Foods and the ever so slightly alternative lifestyle it promotes have become more mainstream, and the brand has prospered.

Walk in beer fridge, Port Chester
Walk in beer fridge, Port Chester

Staying true to its core principles is critical to Whole Foods, and a strong point of view is part of what makes the brand attractive.

Mackey and his team are committed to ‘conscious capitalism’, which includes proper environmental stewardship, healthy eating education, organic produce, and support of local producers and communities.

Whole Foods gives back more than five per cent of total net profits every year. As one of the many mantras in the organisation goes, “it’s not something we do, it’s everything we do”.

For a while after the global financial crisis, hard hit American shoppers tagged Whole Foods as ‘whole paycheck’. But Whole Foods has worked hard to correct that notion and convey an impression of value, with a stronger emphasis on specials, and the expansion of its 365 private label program.

I’ve been fortunate to visit Whole Foods Markets all over the world (besides the US, they have a handful of stores in the UK and Canada), and each one is true to the brand DNA, but at the same time, brilliantly localised.

  • The downtown Chicago store at Lincoln Park features the first sports bar I ever saw in a supermarket, playing the Cubs and the Sox of course. More than that though, smack bang in the middle of the grocery aisles is a wine bar. You can sample a flight of Californian Chardonnays, then take the glass with you as you go shopping. (Not a bad way to loosen the wallet.)
  • The London store, off Piccadilly Circus, has lights above the checkouts shaped like teapots. Meanwhile, as the Fortune Magazine article notes, the new Whole Foods in Detroit has lights fashioned out of Motown records.
  • My local Whole Foods at Port Chester in New York has a walk through beer fridge, bagel and waffle making station, and smokehouse to smoke its own meats. I also love the serve yourself frozen fruits and vegetables cooler – it’s somehow less plastic than the packaged alternative.

So while each store is recognisably Whole Foods, it’s not cookie cutter; each one is its own destination that represents a genuine retail experience.

Better than sex? Well, that’s up to the individual shopper and his or predilections, but it’s definitely better than 90 per cent of the supermarkets out there.

Jon Bird is MD, global of Labstore, Y&R’s worldwide retail and shopper marketing network, based in New York.

Email: Twitter: @thetweetailer. Blog:

Smokehouse, Wholefoods Port Chester
Smokehouse, Wholefoods Port Chester


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