Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe's, And Now Amazon Steps In

06/16/2017 06:21 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2017
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

We had been trying to get Whole Foods to open a store in Nashville for about 15 years, so imagine our joy when they finally opened there. And they opened smart, making a huge effort to educate local consumers. For weeks before opening day, you could sign up to visit, be taken on a guided tour by a knowledgeable staff person who explained everything from GMO and sustainable seafood to why you’d want to eat less processed foods. Very very clever. You went home with a Whole Foods shopping bag filled to the brim with their products, also clever. The mood in the store was upbeat, the layout easy on the eye. Most of all, they were in stiff financial competition with our local groceries. Every few months I’d make random notes on what basics like milk cost at Publix, Kroger, and Whole Foods ― the WF brand of canned foods, oil, vinegar etc was almost always cheaper. The main big cost item differences were meat and fish.

Whole Foods’ arrival completely changed the culture in our city. Completely. Until then, depending on where you lived, your local stores’ customers would be mostly black, or white, or once in a great while, Asian. The same went for check out clerks. Or it would be divided by religious requirements ― Kosher and Halal groceries weren’t available in a lot of stores. You never saw a cashier with a nose ring or tattoos. And we couldn’t convince local groceries to do “bring your own bag” or carry organic foods ― not even milk ― for love or money.

Whole Foods suddenly had all colors, all backgrounds, all cultures, not just the shoppers but the staff. We loved going there for a coffee and people-watching. We loved the policy of “You can always taste anything”. We loved that the hot bar featured fresh cooked foods, many of them local, and that our little “dining counter” had good cooks and basic foods instead of the pseudo-nouveau-California nonsense we’d been seeing in so many new restaurants.

I even spent four months going there every morning with my writing materials; I’d get a coffee, go upstairs to a booth, and sit and write for three or four hours. It was great, got me out of the house and away from my computer/business.

Round about 2014/15, a decade after they’d opened, we noticed Whole Foods corporate were paying a lot of visits to our marvelous store. Which started to change. Subtly at first (less long-time staff; they’d been bought out or shifted down, but you wouldn’t notice unless you’d shopped at the old health food stores locally and remembered them.) The dining counter menu was replaced by what corporate thought Nashville wanted; ditto much of the hot food (Eat barbecue at Whole Foods? really? When we live in the South?) Then the person in charge of the hot bar was fired, and it all went to hell ― for instance, I’m allergic to eggs but always used to be able to get tofu scramble for breakfast. No more, unless it’s a “special weekend.”

The hot bar began “featuring” Foods of the World, for a week at a time. Man, if you’re running in for a quick take out because you’re in the studio and they’re close by and “healthy,” you don’t want to look at the same food for a week ― especially when it’s now all pre-packaged and the local staff don’t really have any say in things. And sad to say, those “Foods of the World” were mostly the cheapest possible versions of ethnic food. Even the definition of “ethnic” got weird.

However, it was still a fairly pleasant place to shop. The staff were invested in the store, emotionally (and probably financially). They really knew their stuff, and when they didn’t, they rushed to find someone who’d help. I really liked that unlike our local large grocery chain, foods stayed in the same location, so I didn’t have to go searching through the aisles every time I wanted a bottle of ketchup.

That all began to change as more corporate moved in. First in the menu and hot bar; then in the actual food items available for purchase. Customers kept complaining that their favorite brand was no longer available; it had been replaced with 365 brand.

Finally, the staff mood changed. Very few older staff remained. There were a lot of young newbies, poorly trained, more concerned with hanging together and being on their phones than customer service. It began to feel like an exclusive social club, one we’d never belong to. Not exactly unfriendly, but not really welcoming.

Whole Foods is a publicly-held corporation. They answer to their stock holders. (Disclaimer: we owned a tiny bit of stock. We sold it a couple of years ago, after I toured cross-country and saw the same thing happening at all their stores.) In their rush to expand and improve stock prices, they forgot what “local” meant, what “local community” meant, and what their original ethics meant. I know that in part because I helped open one of the first Whole Foods stores on the West Coast by promoting it and singing for the opening week. I loved the idea of supermarket-sized health food stores that might spread nation wide!

I never expected the corporate people would override and dictate to locals to this extent.

We shop mostly at Trader Joe’s now. Why? Because every time we walk into “TJ’s”, we feel good. That’s an odd thing, but it’s important. Shopping is a pain most of the time ― you want to get in and out as quickly as possible. At TJ’s, we hang to get a coffee sample. We hang to check out the new stuff. We hang to talk to the staff, who are inevitably ― really, always -- friendly. And who seem happy to be working there. That counts for a lot.

Trader Joe’s is privately held. They answer to their owners, who seem to be wise enough to leave well enough alone.

So maybe that’s part of the Amazon success as well. Call customer service and you usually get someone who starts out apologizing that you have to call in the first place, then tries to fix it. Also, the help is pretty immediate. On the face of it, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods sounds like a good thing. “Amazon is investing in non-GMO foods, in organic foods, in healthy community standards!” Uh huh.

Yet the sale disturbs me on many levels. As a consumer, I love Amazon’s service, quick delivery, low prices. As a vendor, frankly, they make me crazy. They’re not set up for small businesses like mine. They make it really difficult to fulfill their own order requests, expecting that someone like me can get a shipment out within 48 hours even if I received the information on a Saturday. They’ve even, from what I understand, begun to penalize vendors if we don’t get items shipped to them quickly enough. But I don’t have much choice. If an artist’s work isn’t “on Amazon”, people don’t take them seriously. They don’t even believe you have a real career. Producers and record companies go to Amazon.com to see how much material you still have in print. Ditto book festivals. And consumers. It’s difficult enough that I often think I’d be smarter to just sell my masters (the actual recordings I own) and stop dealing with all this nonsense.

I also wonder how much longer the “purity of product” is going to continue. My wife said the other day “But how do we KNOW it’s organic?” and I responded “Because we trust Whole Foods on that.” How long will they be able to continue that protocol, given the harsh culture Amazon imposes on its sellers and workers?

I really don’t know, but I do know that it’s a pity. And a monopoly. And I just don’t understand why, yet again, so much power is permitted to be concentrated in the hands of so few.

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