John Mackey’s Whole Foods Vision to Reshape Capitalism

Recently, Jim Coyle commented on Aldi and Trader Joe’s, mentioning how along the lines of value, those two brands trump Whole Foods.   This spurred me to recall a thought-provoking Fast Company article that I read a couple months ago about Whole Foods founder John Mackey and his struggles to align a values-driven vision with the need to remain profitable.

On the subject of value, Whole Foods has never pretended to be the least expensive grocery option.  What they have touted themselves as, instead, is the source for foods that are good for one’s body and simultaneously good for the planet.  And that is where John Mackey finds himself in the largest predicament.  For, as the brand has grown, the stores have admittedly started carrying more and more foods that fall into neither category.

There is a really great excerpt in this article (see page 3, third paragraph down) about how at a shareholder meeting, someone asked Mackey why he is selling meat if he is a vegan. (Values question.)  Mackey responded by asking how many people in the room were vegans, and of course, only a few hands went up.  The rhetorical question being, how could you shareholders have ever made any profit if Whole Foods were a vegan grocery store?

My perspective on Whole Foods is this:  They provide a tremendous guest experience with something as seemingly mundane as grocery shopping.  (If you have visited their new Chicago Lincoln Park location, you will understand what I mean, and you will recognize how hugely the Whole Foods experience contrasts with the Aldi, Trader Joe’s, or Kroger experience.)  Furthermore, they give consumers the option to buy everything from organic bananas to less-than-healthy cheese puffs.  As consumers, we choose what we want to buy, and we vote with our dollars.

So let’s not criticize Whole Foods too heavily for making the business decisions that they have.  At the end of the day, they do deliver on what Mackey stated at the very beginning of this article: they make good food (not to mention a fun grocery shopping experience) accessible to an awful lot of people.  And whatever identity crises they may face along the way, it sure makes for an interesting case study.

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