Organic Articles: WHOLE FOODS – THREE MONTHS ON

WHOLE FOODS – THREE MONTHS ON

Simon Wright
O&F Consulting

Simon is an organic and Fairtrade consultant to a number of retailers including Planet Organic and Sainsbury’s

The media circus around the Whole Foods Kensington opening party was quite extraordinary – I have never before seen paparazzi attend the opening of a healthfood store. Three months on the dust has settled and a more balanced view is possible, revealing some good things, some less-than good.

The impact on multiple retailers was obvious long before Whole Foods opened in June. Local branches of M&S, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco all sharpened up their act, and Whole Foods can take credit for prompting UK retailers to critically review and improve their organic offer. Tesco and Waitrose introduced ranges called Wholefoods. Endless newspaper articles previewing Whole Foods placed organic, Fairtrade and locally-sourced foods firmly in the public eye, again a positive effect.

Since the Kensington store opened its influence can be seen in The Natural Kitchen and the new concept-store Waitrose (both Marylebone High Street). Press coverage since the launch has been mixed, with initial praise increasingly replaced by Chris Blackhurst in the Evening Standard and now Jonanna Blythman in The Grocer attacking Whole Foods for being too glitzy, too WAGgy and ultimately too…American.

I like the fact that Whole Foods is big and makes some strong statements about what food should be. I like the attention to detail – the cheese-maturing room (with Neal’s Yard), the instore bakery, the attractive displays, the sampling programmes, the attempt to make ethical food both upscale and inviting. I applaud the boldness of the vision and the energy with which it has been executed.

However I have reservations, and they are mainly to do with the way the US format has been applied to the UK. In the last US Whole Foods I visited (Minneapolis) I found it very difficult to distinguish between which products were organic, which products were natural and which were locally-sourced. I have similar problems with the London store, where more fresh products are non-organic than I anticipated and it is difficult to identify them.

The amount of food-to-go at London Whole Foods makes it a great place to meet for a drink or something to eat but ordering something as simple as a warm bagel is a cumbersome business. The menu seems to be becoming more US-oriented, with the hot vegan menu being replaced by a burrito bar.

Another problem is portion sizes. Ready-packed olives in the London store are sold in US-sized containers, which are a lot bigger than typical UK containers. Whole Foods chocolate brownies are approximately twice the size of regular UK brownies, which makes them relatively expensive and a bit OTT in calorific terms.

Little things, but retail is detail.

When I visit Whole Foods I see plenty of customers walking around with a single product, almost like they were food-souvenir shopping at Harrods Foodhall. I see a few customers with a basket of shopping. What I don’t see are many customers buying full trolleys, that is doing a full food shop. And that is a shame because I want Whole Foods to succeed and become part of Londons vibrant food-retailing renaissance.

On the opening night I noticed that the Whole Foods ‘manifesto’ printed on the basement wall spelt ‘colors’ the American way, symptomatic of the US-approach that runs through the store. I like the shop now, but a more locally orientated approach would make Whole Foods Kensington even better.