Curmudgeon that he is, The Curmudgeon has long thought that the almost-supermarket chain Whole Foods was a bit of a racket, and the recent opening of a new Whole Foods outside Philadelphia reminded him of this.
According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the opening of a new Whole Foods in the Philadelphia suburb of Glen Mills attracted the kind of attention that Glen Campbell might’ve drawn in the late 1960s, complete with “crowds that were jammed into the overflow parking lot and maneuvering around the available food.” The store’s opening caused the editor of something called Progressive Grocer (by the way: really? A publication called Progressive Grocer? Yeesh) to gush, “People feel really, really good about it when you get a flagship store…from one of the most respected retailers in the nation, and they pick your neighborhood…People take it very seriously because it’s, like, our store.”
Like wow. Like did this person just leave the staff of her, like, high school newspaper?
Whole Foods reminds The Curmudgeon of the old saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Whole Foods seems to have built a large, successful business by fooling some of the people all of the time.
Now The Curmudgeon understands that some food is better for you than other food. He also understands that some food tastes better than other food and that some food is made with better ingredients than others or grown or raised under better conditions than others. But the entire Whole Foods phenomenon seems to be based on a combination of playing to people’s fears that the food they’re eating isn’t good for them and then selling them on the notion that if they buy this allegedly “better” food, they’re somehow better than people who shop at regular supermarkets, will be happier and healthier than people who shop at regular supermarkets, and will enjoy some kind of moral superiority over people who shop at regular supermarkets.
Whole Foods appears to be at least as much about status as it is about food. People talk about shopping at Whole Foods in much the same way that they talk about staying at a Four Seasons hotel; the way they mention the prestige car they drive; or the way, back in the early 1980s, they would turn around and show you their rear-end so you could see the word “Jordache” or “Sasson” tattooed over their blue jeans-covered buttocks.
The Whole Foods people really milk it for all it’s worth, too. (Not that they shouldn’t, by the way. Contrary to the hallowed tones in which many of their customers talk about it, Whole Foods is a profit-seeking business, not a co-op or a cause.) They do it by charging outlandish prices for the same basic food you can buy elsewhere – in some cases, even the exact same product. (Yahoo Finance pegs the average net margin for grocery stores at 1.5 percent; Whole Foods’ net operating margin, it touts in its own documents, is 5.6 percent. Draw your own conclusions – but thank you for paying four dollars for a single box of whole wheat pasta, sucker.)
Whole Foods sells things that are implicitly better or better for you than what you can buy elsewhere. Most of it is just a variation on what you buy at your neighborhood supermarket, but some of it is weird stuff – something along the lines of twelve-dollar bars of goat dung soap. The implicit message, by virtue of its very presence in the store, is that it’s something you should have known is good for you and something you definitely should put in your cart before you head to the check out (where you risk a derisive look from the cashier if you fail to bring your own bags made of fair trade hemp picked at the edge of the rain forest by aboriginal people wearing grass skirts who were paid fair wages). Yes, they’re environmentalists, too – although that didn’t stop the company from tearing down an existing supermarket in that Philadelphia suburb and then building a new one from the ground up on the same site. The Curmudgeon suspects that profitability at least occasionally trumps environmentalism for the good folks at Whole Foods.
How do they do it? They’ve very successfully created an aura about their company and the goods they sell. “The food we sell is good for you.” “The food we sell is better for you than the food you can buy at the supermarket down the road.” “It’s only reasonable that food that’s better for you should cost more.” “You should be grateful that we’re here to offer you this very expensive food.”
The worst part of it is that while Whole Foods customers appear to take this aura very seriously – and are more than willing to open their wallets extra wide to put their money where their mouth is – The Curmudgeon suspects that the Whole Foods people know better. He imagines store managers sitting in their offices, and corporate officials with their feet up on their desks at their headquarters in Austin, laughing out loud at their customers, absolutely amazed that after so many years, they continue to fool so many of the people so much of the time. It’s quite an achievement, when you think about it.
But it doesn’t fool The Curmudgeon. He’s lived within walking distance of a Whole Foods for the past eight years and probably hasn’t been in that store ten times during that period. He gave it a fair shot, but the fruit doesn’t taste any sweeter; the chicken doesn’t taste any chickenier; the fish doesn’t seem any fresher; the local brand of ice cream that costs fifty cents less at the supermarket a half-mile away isn’t any richer; and the hot table from which food is there for the taking for a quick meal seems no less likely to serve as an incubator for bacteria than the hot table at the supermarket down the road. As for the baked goods, well, this is an area of special interest and expertise for The Curmudgeon, and let us just note that he is unimpressed.
The Curmudgeon always says “To each his own,” and maybe some people can feel or taste the difference and maybe those people will live longer, be happier, and win their office NCAA basketball tournament pool and don’t mind spending all that money for the feeling of moral superiority it gives them. To The Curmudgeon, however, the exaltation of Whole Foods is a little half-baked.