Whole Foods and the Triumph of Customer Capitalism


Ever been in a large supermarket and you can’t find an unusual item? And when you ask one of the staff who is doing something else, like stacking products on the shelf, you are told, “I dunno,” or “Try aisle five,” or “Sorry, not my section”?


Not at Whole Foods.


When I shop there and I ask for help from any of the workers as to where I might find an obscure product like demi-glace sauce or frozen pate feuilletée or dark tapenade he or she invariably stops doing the current task and helps me solve my problem. I am impressed that the worker usually know what the obscure product is—a good start—and also where it is located. And then they walk me to the part of the store where I can find the product, even if it means going to the other end of the store and point to it.


Never a moment’s hesitation. The same response even if they are deeply involved in some other task. Always gracious. Never irritated at the request. Never an excuse like “it’s not my section”. Or “Try aisle five.” Even when I protest that there is really no need to walk me there, just tell me which aisle, they insist on walking me to the exact spot and pointing to my item. Remarkable!


Now Whole Foods isn’t perfect. My beefs include: why no self-checkout? And why not even more local products than they have? Other customers complain that Whole Foods big stores feel impersonal and should be offering even more help to the community. But in shopping there, I as a customer can’t help getting the feeling that customers come first. Obviously Whole Foods does different things for lots of different stakeholders. But shopping there gives me as a customer the sense that Whole Foods is there for me.


Whole Food has a single goal: customer value


This feeling is not entirely surprising since Whole Foods itself declares that its goal is to put customers first. The following from Wikipedia is a fair summary of a complex subject:


Walter Robb, Whole Foods Market Co-CEO, details the company’s core values: “The deepest core of Whole Foods, the heartbeat, if you will, is this mission, this stakeholder philosophy: customers first, then team members, balanced with what’s good for other stakeholders, such as shareholders, vendors, the community, and the environment.


CEO John Mackey describes how the stakeholder philosophy combines with capitalism: “We’ve always been unique in that we have a stakeholder philosophy, and it continues to guide us,” Mackey says. “The beauty, in my opinion, of capitalism is that it has a harmony of interests. All these stakeholders are important. It is important that the owners and workers cooperate to provide value for the customer. That’s what all business is about, and I’d say that’s a beautiful thing.”


I think it’s fair to say that Whole Foods takes into account many stakeholder interests but it has a single goal, focused on delivering value for customers.


This is very different from the traditional strategy of a company like, say, Safeway which focuses on making money and maximizing shareholder value.  Read More