Cracking Whole Foods

The food giant has its shopping experience down to a science. This holiday season, game the grocer to your favor.

By Sam Grobart

ILLUSTRATION BY NEIL SWAAB

The second you enter a Whole Foods, The Treatment hits you. Produce is arranged by hue and put in black bins, making the color pop. “People have to remember that they’ve been primed,” says retail consultant Martin Lindstrom. “If I can give you the impression that everything is as fresh as can be, you’ll be prepared to spend more.”

Pro tip

Ask employees to do things for you. Want a half a melon when only whole ones are for sale? Ask someone to cut it in half for you and sell it for half the price. Ask someone to open a box of cookies if you want to try one. Employees are encouraged to grant requests, but they can’t if you don’t ask.

Whole Foods still battles the perception that it’s overpriced. That’s because it was. But the recession forced a price reset led by house brand 365, about 25 percent cheaper than comparable branded products, according to Edward Aaron of RBC Capital Markets.

Whole Foods knows who the competition is, and its name is Joe. Says Karen Short, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets: “Whole Foods’ prices on 365 items are literally matching Trader Joe’s on virtually identical products.”

In many locations, dining areas are right by the entrance. “You see people enjoying their products right when you walk in,” says Bill Chidley of Interbrand Design Forum. That’s intentional — the idea is to set a mood for shopping.

You won’t see self-checkout at a Whole Foods. The company says it has no plans to install touchscreen kiosks. “With self-checkout, you abdicate your store’s brand to the technology,” says Chidley. “Whole Foods doesn’t want to abdicate their brand experience at any point.”

The chain used to play both sides of the sustainable-seafood debate: It featured ratings from groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but it also sold fish rated “avoid” by that group. As of March, the grocer has banished red-labeled seafood from its stores.

If you think you see more staffers in a Whole Foods than in other stores, you’re right: According to Short’s analysis, Whole Foods has an average of 206 employees per store. That’s more than Publix (at 146), Kroger (138), and Safeway (107).

The farm-stand aesthetic you see (crates, hand-painted signs) is part conservation (old crates are repurposed for display purposes), part theater: Some crates are actually made specifically for the stores, even though they may appear to have just fallen off the turnip truck.

The chain has increased the size of its shopping baskets over the past three years, says Lindstrom. Now you can fill it with more stuff. “We calculated that if a retailer increases the size of the basket,” Lindstrom says, “it can boost revenue by up to 40 percent.”

Ever notice that the music playing in a Whole Foods is likely to be your favorite hits from the ’80s and ’90s? “When you hear old favorite songs in a store,” says Chidley, “you feel like ‘this place gets me.’ It forms a quick emotional bond.”

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