What Makes Whole Foods Unique? [Insider’s Guide]


Whole Foods is known for being pricey, yet a lot of people still crowd their stores on a daily basis. That makes many wonder what Whole Foods has that attracts shoppers. What makes Whole Foods unique?

Here’s what I know from working there over 2 decades:

Whole Foods is unique because it’s a value-driven organization and is the largest grocery store to only sell products free of artificial ingredients and preservatives. It was also the first health food store to make its stores look and feel like a conventional grocery store.

Whole Foods is the leader and pacesetter for natural and organic groceries.

And while they are hardly the only store to sell those products today, they were the originators of many concepts we take for granted today. And they had a lot to do with the organically-grown legislation that keeps organic foods truly free from pesticides and other contaminants.

Before becoming a consultant, I worked for 20+ years and ran several of their most successful stores across the country.

So let’s explore some of the less obvious, but interesting facts about “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.”

What are Whole Foods’ core values & motto?

Whole Foods Market’s core values include selling only high-quality foods, employee happiness, outstanding customer service, and balancing all stakeholders’ needs when making decisions. Their motto is “Our purpose is to nourish people and the planet.”

Whole Foods see its core values as integral to its culture, as we can see from an extract of a statement on the issue:

“core values reflect what is truly important to us as an organization. These are not values that change from time to time, situation to situation or person to person, but rather they are the underpinning of our company culture:”

The following are its core values:

  • We Sell the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Foods
  • We satisfy and delight our customers
  • We promote team member growth and happiness (it used to say team member happiness and excellence)
  • We practice win-win partnerships with our suppliers (this was added much later)
  • We create profits and prosperity (it used to say wealth and profits)
  • We Care About our Community and the Environment

And it eliminated its core value about “We promote the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education” around the time of the Amazon acquisition in 2017.

That also coincided with them backing off their Health Starts Here program which basically pushed CEO John Mackey’s vegan diet.

The company’s motto is “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet.” It sees itself as “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.”  

WF is a values-driven company. This can be seen not just from what I shared above (after all, virtually all companies have them), but because WF’s business idea sprang from an idealistic yearning to help folks eat wholesome foods.

And, it has largely been living up to its values. 

Some could argue that it could have been a much bigger business if it had given up its values. But, I believe that its values (which gave it an edge, at a point) are vital to its success and popularity.

Truth be told, there have been a few occasions when it strayed away from the lofty stance reflected in its values. But, its faithfulness to the values is one reason it grew popular and was an instant success, despite its relatively higher prices.

You’ve probably wondered about this “contradiction” (how an expensive store could be so popular).

That’s why I devoted a recent article of mine to explore the reasons the brand is so popular.

One of the reasons I shared in it is that it’s the leader in the natural and organic product’s niche and its stores are kinda like Starbucks,’ as in, they’re alluring places folks like to spend time in.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Why is Whole Foods so successful?

Whole Foods Market became successful because they made their stores larger and more like conventional grocery stores compared to all other health food stores at the time. Then as healthy eating became more mainstream, they were able to grow to fit the demand.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

“You know, John, I see you have got a pretty good business here, but it looks to me — I looked at all the stores — like you are a just a bunch of hippies and you are just selling food to other hippies, and I don’t think that is a very big market.”

That was what a venture capitalist told founder and CEO John Mackey (back in the day) when he was trying to raise more capital.

I’ll mention a few reasons why it became successful early on.

Today, Whole Foods is a multinational brand that capitalized on the demand for healthy food. One of the main reasons for its success is that it saw a need and filled it.

When it started, stores that were into organic and natural foods were few and far between.

Even though customers were ready to buy, they weren’t keen on shopping at the health stores that were common then.

These were often small, disorganized, dirty places. Or they were member-based COOPs who didn’t always take kindly to outsiders shopping there. 

Enter Whole Foods Market.

In time, eating healthy became mainstream. This meant that more and more people were buying its products. It was no longer a fringe, counterculture innovation meant for hippies and a relatively small number of people. It’s now for most discerning folks.

Naturally, this fueled the company’s growth.

Another factor is that the management was savvy that it needed more than organic growth. It bought a lot of other stores, and in the span of a few decades, became a national, then, a multinational brand.

In 1992, it became a public company and raised $28 million. A considerable chunk went into acquiring other stores. In 2017, Amazon acquired it for 13.7 billion dollars.

One could argue that e-commerce also had a positive impact on grocery shopping, in general, and consequently on Whole Foods’ success.

But in real terms, how has online grocery shopping increased?

In a recent article of mine, I shared the facts. 2020 blew everyone’s minds in terms of a shift to online grocery ordering for pick up or delivery. But did it really increase by hundreds of percent?

Just click the link to read it on my site.

How does Whole Foods help the community?

Whole Foods Market has 3 Foundations (Whole Kids, Whole Planet, Whole Cities) which support those in need at the local, national and global levels. Since 2005, it’s committed $50 million to help the communities it serves in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

It has a range of Community Giving Programs through which it supports many organizations with similar values as its own.

Its employees (Team Members) also have opportunities to give back to the community. WF has initiatives in place to help them make meaningful impacts on the communities they serve or even travel to some other parts of the world to help.

WF donates to food banks and shelters. And, it has “5%” days. On such days, 5% of the day’s net sales are donated to local nonprofits and educational institutions.

I mentioned above that it has three Foundations. But how exactly do they give to the community?

Whole Kids’ focus is improving the lives of children in school. It offers salad bars (for healthier eating), subsidizes school gardens, and offers cooking and nutrition education for teachers and staff.

Whole Planet’s mission is poverty alleviation. It provides microcredit for the most destitute poor to create or expand a business and therefore lift themselves out of poverty.

Whole Cities is about bringing quality food to cities in need. It supports the health and nutrition of communities in many ways. For example, it creates food access solutions and offers healthy eating classes.

It stands to reason that Whole Foods is more likely to support needs that align with its priorities. These are Healthy Food Access, Community Food Systems, Food Security, Food Waste, Sustainability, and Health + Wellness.

Is Whole Foods worth the money?

Whole Foods Market has always been worth the money for those who care about their health and the health and livelihood of the people who both manufacture the products as well as the company’s employees. And since Amazon bought them, prices have dropped an average of 20%.

Many other grocery stores have indeed tapped into the market that Whole Foods created, but it’s still the leader.

It’s indeed “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.” When you shop at WF, you’re sure of what you’re getting. You’re sure it’s natural and organic.

In fact, there are ingredients it doesn’t allow in the food it sells. It has an official list.

Knowing how critical food is to our health, one shouldn’t be “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” It’s worth paying a slight premium for healthy food, convenience, and beauty. Shopping at WF is a great experience. The store is amazingly clean and alluring.

Discerning folks know that quality is not cheap.

That’s the honest truth. But at the same time, you might be wondering why the store is expensive. I took the time to answer that question in a recent article of mine.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Is Whole Foods the most expensive grocery store?

Whole Foods Market is not the most expensive grocery store when you compare exact items to one another. Popular grocer Wegmans on the East Coast averages 9% more than Whole Foods, and Sprouts Farmers Market is 1.3% more expensive.

(source)

That doesn’t mean you can’t spend a lot of money at Whole Foods.

Before the acquisition, folks would joke that you needed a “Whole Paycheck” to shop at Whole Foods. It’s actually not the case.

But, the reality, then, was that WF used to enjoy an average gross profit of 10% to 20%, whereas more conventional grocery stores rarely gross above 2% bottom line profits. (source)

As I mentioned, prices dropped quite a bit after being bought by Amazon in 2017.

But I still see items there priced higher than local competitors such as HEB. And occasionally, those price differences are significant.

But there are some stores that clearly beat Whole Foods on price!

Luckily in a recent article, I detail those stores, how much cheaper they are than Whole Foods and exactly how much (and in which departments) Whole Foods improved after Amazon.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Final Thoughts

What are some of the factors that make Whole Foods unique?

In a nutshell, they were the first grocery store to combine healthy foods and the look and feel of a mainstream grocery store. But they also have a much higher focus on customer service too.

But then they put a lot of thought and effort into the store decor and how the stores feel. That’s one of the reasons they have such a loyal following and that so many just come and “hang out”. That just doesn’t happen at Kroger or Safeway.

Lastly, it’s an idealistic company that’s shown that “conscious capitalism” is not a myth.


Photo which requires attribution:

Whole Foods Market in the East Village of New York by David Shankbone is licensed under CC2.0 and has been cropped, color-adjusted, with a text overlay.

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

Recent Posts