A Grocery Experience That’s Better than Sex?

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,” says John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, in the current issue of 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 to 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 it’s a growing force.

Its not something we do London Wholefoods
Frozen fruits and vegetables at Port Chester Wholefoods
London Wholefoods
Smokehouse at Port Chester Wholefoods
Wholefoods Lincoln Park Chicago
Wine bar at Wholefoods Lincoln Park Chicago
Wholefoods Port Chester NY

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.

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 5 percent of total net profits per year. As one of the many mantras in the organization goes: “it’s not something we do, it’s everything we do.”

For a while, post 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 localized.

  • 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 noted, 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, a bagel and waffle-making station, and a 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 recognizably 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 percent of the supermarkets out there.