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Whole Foods Market: The Apple of the Food Industry

whole foods shopping cart In the technology world, Steve Jobs was either revered or reviled. In the world of food culture, Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey is viewed in a similar vein. Few would argue, however, that both made significant contributions to their respective industries through innovation and inspiration at a time when those industries were somewhat stagnant. Apple and Whole Foods Market have nurtured a loyal following of consumers through high-quality products and retail experiences.


Love them or hate them, people pay attention to what these icons of their industries do or say. So, when John Mackey spoke at a Taste of Tomorrow event recently in Chicago, our ears perked up because much of what he said echoed in many ways what The Hartman Group has been saying for the better part of two decades. As captured in a article,1 Mr. Mackey described his thinking on what he sees as the evolution of “food consciousness” among Americans and its resulting impact on healthy food purchases and other trends. He went on to say that, “Consumers are seeking authenticity, and the market is witnessing a foodie revolution, a re-emergence of food artisans, a consumer desire for transparency, and the desire for food that is natural, organic, local, global, ethical, healthy and sustainable.”

Mr. Mackey took his comments one step further by warning the attendees of the event that if they don’t understand foodie consumers they, “are going to be left behind.”

If you’ve been following us for any length of time, you no doubt have heard us exhort that change and the marketplace is consumer driven. Examining through the lens of the consumer, then, Mr. Mackey makes some valid points and we would be inclined to agree—to a point.

What was once a paradigm of healthy eating habits and healthier food products is now a paradigm of high-quality eating experiences, of which healthier eating is but one of many sub-themes. Other relevant sub-themes include those Mr. Mackey mentioned, organic, local, natural, sustainable as well as various ingredient and sourcing trends.

Consumers have not abandoned their interest in healthier eating habits or healthier food products. But what is important to understand is that, before those attributes can even resonate with consumers, the experience must first qualify as a high-quality food experience, and the rules for qualification are not necessarily what you might expect. So, here are our views on some of Mr. Mackey’s more salient points.

We are witnessing an evolution of food consciousness and a food revolution.
We couldn't agree more about the revolution underway in food culture. For years now we have witnessed a consistent transition among the population where the average consumer’s depth and breadth of knowledge about food, with subsequent curiosity for its production story and a desire for transparency, have steadily evolved to have greater and greater meaning. Cues like fresh, natural, organic, local, and ethical all fall under the rubric of what signals "good food" and higher-order eating and shopping experiences today—especially for the “foodies” described by Mr. Mackey.

Consumers can afford to buy healthy food, but don't.
We would somewhat agree with this, but it varies within the population in terms of where consumers are located with respect to lifestyle and their pursuit of wellness. Over the past decade we have documented that the most involved "Core" wellness shoppers, while a minority, are typically the most willing to invest in foods with a perceived health halo (e.g., organics and fresh, "real" foods). Such behaviors go hand in hand, since for most consumers the equation between health and fresh, "real" food is extremely high today—it's just that it's strongest, and most likely to be practiced with more regularity by a relatively small minority of the population (we currently show 13% of the population as Core wellness). In fact, we have found that it is often less about affording healthy food than it is about how, as Americans, we often:

  • Lack scratch-cooking skills typically required to make healthier foods and also
  • Lack the time and/or desire and time to prepare wholesome and healthier foods: As a society, we often value convenience over nutrition.


Related to the notion that consumers can afford to buy healthy food but don’t, as ethnographers in the field we repeatedly witness families making over $100,000 annually, living in beautiful homes, driving two SUVs and shopping at Walmart for groceries because they “need” to save money. In such cases, it is often a matter of both an expectation of what food “should” cost as well as a question of priorities. Specifically, this means a particular point of view on what food means to them and their expectations for that food itself.

Whole Foods has emerged as a romantic reaction to industrial foods.
This is partially true, but we have to consider this idea with regard to how shoppers with whom we shopped within Whole Foods view the store, which is primarily as a superb location for food theater, and as a great potential solution to "what's for dinner?" While Whole Foods itself would like to believe it has emerged as a romantic reaction to "industrial foods," it actually may be much more than that, which is more of a showcase for what "food can be." Certainly the most food-involved shoppers view the stores as an antidote to industrial foods, but many more also view Whole Foods stores as the physical embodiment of the deep digital food experiences now so commonly found on the Cooking Channel and Food Network. Of central importance, and more than just the foodie appeal, health, wellness, sustainability and social justice are all issues influencing consumers to think more critically about food values—the quality of their food, where it comes from, how it’s produced and what it's really worth. Since these constructs intersect with the romantic notion of food (as Mr. Mackey describes), we believe such reevaluations will only increase.

Food for Thought

Companies wishing to keep pace with consumers must make a shift in understanding what the consumer redefinition of quality means. Quality itself has made a meteoric shift from the industrial revolution era of the late 1800s, where quality was industry-driven and measured almost solely in terms of production, to today’s consumer-driven interpretations expressed through principles, values and experiences.

Whole Foods Market has certainly led the charge in this regard, but you see evidence of this new way forward in other food retailers as well, like Trader Joe's and Chipotle, and brands like Kashi and Nieman Ranch. These are examples of companies that understand that the connection between high-quality experiences and healthy lifestyles is the pathway to today’s ever-changing and evolving consumer.

For food marketers who continue to maintain a status quo perspective on providing food experiences steeped in traditional approaches, there is indeed a risk of being left behind by brands that are more innovative and relevant to changing food culture.

1, 10/22/2012, “’We can afford to eat healthier food, but we choose not to' - Whole Foods Market Co-Founder Challenges Healthy Food Cost Perception”


Retail/Shopper Insights Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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