Dynamist Blog

Whole Foods: Pioneers of the Aesthetic Imperative

Nick Paumgarten's New Yorker profile of John Mackey offers a couple of interesting observations about the secrets to Whole Foods' success. In short, the chain thrived by understanding that it is selling pleasure, not virtue.

On the store's early days:

[I]in 1980, the four of them opened the first Whole Foods, in a former night club. It was ten thousand square feet. They stocked not just lentils and granola but, in contravention of the co-op ethos, indulgences like meat, beer, and wine; there were aisles full of five-gallon bottles of distilled water, to avoid the embarrassment of empty shelf space. The idea was to go beyond the movement's old tofu severity, the air of judgment and self-abnegation. Their version of decadence seems Spartan now, but at the time it represented a cultural shift.

and, later

A grocer, typically, wants to hide what goes on in back. A grocery store is a theatrical production, designed to dazzle the customer, and to disguise the artifice and hard work behind the scenes. Over the years, grocers have helped keep their customers happily ignorant of the food's origins--of the horrors of the slaughterhouse, the miseries of the onion fields, and the absurdities contained in a can of soda or a bag of chips. Our interface with the food chain ended with the stock boy and his sticker gun in Aisle 6.

Whole Foods sought to change that. It began to sell information and narrative, along with the food. It told stories about where the food came from, putting up displays by the seafood counter with photographs and descriptions of the real fishermen who had caught it all--a genre that Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, called "supermarket pastoral."

The profusion of provender--the array of colors and shapes, the gleaming fruits, fishes, and meats, the grains and cakes and ranges of artisanal cheeses and beers--is as much an apotheosis of America's abundance and reach as it is any kind of refutation of it. Whole Foods may aim to be a rebuke to the excess that comes of petrochemical might, unconscious gluttony, and corn-bloated immoderation. But it is also an imperial presentation of progress's spoils, like a king's Christmas feasts. The business depends on it, even if the brand image does not. The layout encourages impulse purchases. This is how a weekend grocery bill there can easily run to four hundred bucks.

As an aside, I like the way The New Yorker's site automatically gives you the URL when you cut and paste text from one of its articles.

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