Buechel: Whole Foods loyalists aren’t going away

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NEW YORK — In pioneering the natural and organic food movement in the United States, Whole Foods Market has probably done as much as any retailer to unite shoppers around the idea of a purpose-driven business.

But in today’s uncertain economic environment, can consumers be expected to remain committed to notions of sustainability and purpose?

That’s a question put to Jason Buechel, chief executive officer of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, in an interview earlier this month at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show.

Posing the question to Buechel — who joined Whole Foods nearly a decade ago and late last year was promoted to succeed cofounder and CEO John Mackey — was Nick Handrinos, vice chair and leader of Deloitte LLP’s retail and consumer products practice.

While acknowledging the reality that economic distress affects consumer behavior, Buechel said Whole Foods’ core customer “really cares about our quality standards and differentiation that we bring to market. And so a customer who really cares about those things, I think regardless of what’s happening in the economy they’re going to try to find ways to stay true to that.”

Other Whole Foods shoppers will adjust their buying patterns, he said, with many filling their carts with more entry-level Whole Foods products scattered throughout the store.

“One of the things we do is offer ‘good, better or best.’ It’s an ability for a customer to still have the same quality but also have a great price,” he added.

Whole Foods shoppers tend to have a nuanced sense of value. Full transparency is important, Buechel said, as are issues around sustainability.

One area in which Whole Foods has done well is in offering programs that help consumers feel good about what the company is doing throughout the supply chain, he said. “They can feel good about what they’re buying.”

Buechel this month unveiled Growing with Purpose, a 10-year plan to lead Whole Foods into the future. The plan calls for Whole Foods to grow over the next decade by increasing and investing profits strategically while focusing on four clear priorities:

Creating the best customer experience in stores and online.

Investing in team member growth and happiness.

Delivering exceptional business performance.

Expanding reach to serve customers in new ways.

The crux of Growing with Purpose is to further fulfill the company’s Purpose to Nourish People and the Planet.

Whole Foods has 534 stores in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., with about 50 more in the pipeline. Buechel said the company ultimately wants to be opening 30 or more stores a year.

“I’m so excited to share how we’ll deliver on our higher purpose, including commitments to environmental stewardship, significant financial investment into our team member experience, plans to set company records for new store growth and the possibility of reaching new markets around the globe in the next decade,” he said. “These are achievements that would have been beyond imagination when the first Whole Foods Market opened in Austin more than 40 years ago.”



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