Nov 29, 2018, 05:57AM

Confessions of a Whole Foods Junkie

Amazon-size growing pains.

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Whole Foods Market is facing a personality crisis. Will America’s healthiest grocery store‎ remain an Instagram favorite after a hard day?

In 2017, the news was a big surprise; Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13.4 billion. Since the buyout, Whole Foods is experiencing growing pains. To see what effect Amazon is having on Whole Foods, I visited a nearby store and bought a coffee and muffin.

John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO and co-founder, says “we’re growing something” and according to CNBC “taking the shopping experience to the next level.” Mackey seems like a forthright conscious capitalist; he’s even had disagreements with Amazon in the past. In order to sell more food and spread healthy eating ideas, the Whole Foods business model needed expansion.

Whole Foods is “the” mega-warehouse natural food experience. My first health food store memories in college were simple: a small Sikh place called The Golden Temple in Baltimore. They sold a tasty Muenster cheese, avocado and sprouts sandwich on seven-grain bread.

With 494 Whole Foods stores worldwide, there was a lot noise about lower prices after the merger. Amazon likes the idea of lower prices, which translates to: let’s continue to be expensive; there are no dramatic decreases. Forbes reported in September, “Whole Foods is still ‘whole paycheck’ under Amazon, research shows.” Amazon Prime members get a savings of about $1.50 on a $400 total basket.

Prime is Amazon’s pushy, marketing tactic. A large banner hangs above the checkout area featuring an overexposed, low-slung, “up your butt” Amazon arrow logo abusing the bottom of Amazon’s letter Z. For some reason, it’s reminiscent of Joe Camel. Overheard at the next register, a couple repeats their phone number to the cashier referring to the Prime program grousing, “Does it really even get us anything?” At least free home delivery is offered.

There were snags the first week of deliveries. My friend’s “partial” order arrived: one unripe avocado inside a three-foot square box filled to the brim with packing peanuts. “Produce, line two! Thank you.”

Shopping for groceries is a bizarre social ritual. Wandering through aisles filled with thousands of products, shoppers buy on impulse. Cans and boxes are slam-dunked into carts. A hand might reach over your shoulder to grab a box of almond flour sea salt crackers.

The thing that makes Whole Foods different from other grocery stores is their “green” philosophy. With that in mind, Whole Foods states, “These are not values that change from time to time, situation to situation or person to person, but rather they are the underpinning of our company culture.” Interior store branding uses nomenclature that incorporates the company’s beliefs: paleo, gluten-free, sustainably sourced and flexitarian. Is Whole Foods shedding green, moving toward a Walmart industrial gray? It seems like it at times.

Appealing to fickle environmental-friendly consumers, passionate about protecting the planet is a difficult task. Take the diverse world of coffee drinkers. For instance, if you’re not a cult disciple of eco-friendly coffee roasts or familiar with the current history of plantation coffee growing in Guatemala, you might feel left out.

Whole Foods protocol is consistent. It tries to be inclusive; making you feel like you’re part of the community while trying to offer a better customer experience. Sipping an enjoyable, slightly over-roasted coffee in their cafe, the approach generally works. The store’s intercom politely announces, "Any available team member, line 2. Thank you.”

Being in Whole Foods at 8:45 a.m. screams entertainment. Enter Bruce Springsteen to kickstart your shopping. “Born to Run” simmers at half-volume over the store’s audio system.

A Whole Foods cafe could double for: a) college study hall; b) WeWork space; c) futuristic highway rest stop, you decide. A couple of young designers are seated at a long, wood table co-working on a client’s website redesign.

“All sounds good to me because really like, we’re literally working off script today.” The two sip non-GMO vitamin waters between thoughts. "What about face-timing? Okay, now can you like hear us? We’re in Whole Foods and umm, like it’s really loud. Can we push it to 12:30? Umm, yeah.”

The checkout area is a constant wave of shifting personal spaces. Grown men wear Kanken backpacks and international backpackers hold items like scones and bottled water. A woman primps for a selfie. Inside her shoulder bag a shy, teacup Yorkie peeks out. White-haired dads with new moms push big baby carriages.

Throughout the aisles, meandering shoppers carry tote bags with printed apple eyes and banana smiles. Want a whole grain morning glory mini-muffin, head to the bakery department. Full carts of cakes and pan pizza breeze by. Fresh-stocked steam tables fill the air with curry and cinnamon. Roasted chickens with rosemary appeal to the senses. Elvis Costello croons about writing a book of love.

New changes at Whole Foods: Amazon lockers for micro visits. It’s happening now, going to Whole Foods for three-five minutes. The move signals “get out-of-the-way trouble” to me, a warning sign to stand aside while a Jennifer Garner lookalike in Givenchy sweatpants full sprints toward a locker.

And what better place to display “farm fresh” tech equipment like Echo, Amazon’s voice controlled speaker system than smack-in-the-middle of the tomato section. Next time you’re searching for a ripe vegetable you may hear gasping, “Alexa, know any dirty jokes?”

Will Amazon’s expanding technology rebrand Whole Foods? One can imagine new features like interactive kiosks. Now live streaming in the dried beans section: a frustrated, hipster consumed in chili thoughts is having a panic attack. No need to worry; Whole Foods to the rescue, recipe on your phone. Whole Foods high-five emoji. Your Klonopin prescription is ready too! Insert double emoji here.

Devoid of human emotion on every level, here’s a potential nightmare: you’re banned for life from all stores by the Amazon police. Posting negative comments about Amazon online is verboten. Amazon’s AI Rekognition services with its own facial recognition software makes denial and ID easy. Call customer service if there’s a problem.

The concerns about technology have “stressed-out of their minds” employees wondering what’s next. Well move over 7-Eleven. By 2021, Amazon Go is slated to open as many as 3000 cashier-less convenience stores. The stores will be equipped with cameras and sensors to record and track your every movement.

Amazon’s complex marriage to Whole Foods is a work in progress. It needs a little space to work things out. Will Whole Foods promise to keep its core values natural remain? Loyal customers hope so. Next time I’m waiting in line with a coffee and muffin, I’ll be daydreaming about paddling through mile-high thick jungles of food aisles along a piranha-infested, dangerous river in Latin America. A CCTV records my exit. Perfectly timed for departure: Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

  • Is it worth shopping at Whole Foods if you never tell anybody? I read a hilarious piece about a guy at Whole Foods in Redhook--went 97% for Hillary--when the overhead music started "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. This was the day after the election. Well, those who shop at Whole Foods don't even have many first world problems. Good for them.

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  • Right now I'm jonesing for that tasty Muenster cheese, avocado and sprouts sandwich on seven-grain bread. My local Whole Foods is in the same complex as a new brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore, which is about the size of a public lavatory and has scarcely more books. Both establishments are very offputting just now.

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