How Whole Foods Can Get ‘Healthy’ Again

January 06, 2010

Is it too late for Whole Foods to shift from indulgence back to its health-food core?

Is it too late for Whole Foods to shift from indulgence back to its health-food core? Did the once distinct chain move too far from its roots to retain its command of the ‘healthy supermarket’ position?

Much has happened the past few years to prompt doubt about the timing of this decision: A persistent recession has affected the gourmet ride up the demographic ladder. Pretty much everyone shops to save. And probably the majority of supermarkets where Whole Foods trades have emulated enough of the pioneer’s moves and assortments to satisfy the health-driven shoppers that frequent their stores. The stark difference to many: Similar or identical products are often available elsewhere at prices that are 25% lower. 

So when the chain’s irrepressible chief executive John Mackey says that supper clubs, classes and information products about nutrition and healthy eating can bring back the gestalt, we at wonder if people will be willing to pay the price today.  

What is the value of the Whole Foods experience when shoppers have less discretionary income, and simply need to feed their families? People can eat pretty well buying in other stores too, and people with their savings mojo may perceive fluff within the Whole Foods environment. Can the chain successfully reconnect with health-driven shoppers if it doesn’t also compete on price?   

Clearly, the chain’s stock price has rebounded nicely this past year after a lengthy battering. While we applaud much of what Mackey has innovated and achieved at the helm of Whole Foods, unless new chairman John Elstrott has ideas for making Whole Foods not just ‘healthy,’ but more relevant to the way people shop today, the chain may be preaching health to fewer consumers.

Today when the likes of Aldi, Trader Joe’s and Save-A-Lot are seeing many new shoppers, we wonder if the ‘health’ premise alone will be enough to return Whole Foods to its glory days. Or has the chain waited too long? Have Mackey’s tirades against government health care pushed its Democrat shopper base away? Have his personality quirks undermined the chain’s aims to do good by thriving?

No one likes to be lectured, especially when he or she or loved ones are ill. When Mackey told The New Yorker, “If I could, I would wave a magic wand so that Americans ate better, because the diseases that are killing us—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s—these diseases have a high correlation with diet. And that is something that most people do not understand,” he might be right, but he doesn’t please people.  

So along with a new value relevancy to go along with its fundamental strength in health, we suggest that Whole Foods also find a new public voice—one that’s more in sync with the public’s emotions today and one which people will find easier to embrace.