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What is the secret to Whole Foods Market's success?


The reasons why Whole Foods remains at the top of the food retailing game are many and well documented, but a recent interview with the company’s co-CEO, Walter Robb, underscored for me how the company was able to bounce back with a vengeance during the recession and why the future will continue to be bright for Whole Foods.

Whole Foods Market is arguably one of the most innovative companies in the health and wellness arena, and the natural retail juggernaut continues to impress the market with its sales performance and growth while other large grocers struggle and face uncertain futures.

The reasons why Whole Foods remains at the top of the food retailing game are many and well documented, but an Aug. 9 Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview with the company’s co-CEO, Walter Robb, underscored for me how the retailer was able to bounce back with a vengeance during the recession and why the future will continue to be bright for Whole Foods.

What’s the secret to Whole Foods’ success?

The retailer stands for something—and does so in more than just its PR and marketing. “This company is a mission-based company,” Robb told Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “This company started to change the world by bringing healthier food to the world. It’s not about the money, it’s about the impact, and this company is back on track as a result of those experiences.”

Whole Foods’ mission can be tracked in just about everything the company does—from its high product standards to the creation of its Wellness Clubs to its efforts to educate consumers on the nutrient density of specific foods.

Sure, even Whole Foods sells products in its stores that are far from healthy, even if they are natural or organic (I’m talking about you, whoopie pies). The retailer, like most other grocers, also carries genetically modified food that is not labeled as such and uses a few ingredients such as canola oil in its prepared foods that some would rather see left out.

Whole Foods itself acknowledges that it could always be doing more to achieve its mission and that’s why the company decided to open a store in downtown Detroit next year.

“Where we’ve kind of stopped, I think, in our mission to bring healthier natural foods to the marketplace is with underserved communities that don’t have access to fresh food or have access to it in different ways,” Robb said. “When you look at the demographics and psychographics, it’s a groundbreaker for Whole Foods in terms of this particular location. It’s an effort to stretch ourselves in service of our mission, which is to bring healthier foods to the world in a broader, newer direction. It’s generated a lot of interest from mayors around the country.”

The end result, Robb added, is that Whole Foods is proving that a company can do well—even very well—by doing good. “The money comes because you are on a mission,” Robb says. “You are doing what you are here to do, and the money comes as a result of the way that you do it.”

Companies of all shapes and sizes look to Whole Foods for inspiration and ideas for how to be successful in the natural products space and beyond. The mission-based approach to making money is one page I wish all companies would take from the Whole Foods playbook.

How do you demonstrate your commitment to your company's mission? Share in the comments.

Discuss this Blog Entry 16

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2012

Many independent natural retailers in North America offer the very same missions and values. Shame they don't get this kind of exposure and support from big media

Jacob (not verified)
on Aug 23, 2012

There are many great natural and organic companies out there. I work for one and have been in the industry for 15 years. Whole foods did start out with a fantastic mission statement and purpose. There are many choices for a company like that to make along the way. One thing really to say is that they are publicly traded. I would love to see Whole foods not worry about their profits and poor that money into more education for consumers and take a much firmer stance on "clean products" like the company I work for. The only thing we have as true power as individuals and companies alike is our dollars. Come on Whole Foods. Get rid of the junk and be really natural and organic. You are the leader in the industry.

KeriAn Dodson (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2012

Rebecca's Natural Food is turning 25 years old this year. That's about 9,000 days that the hundreds of people who have worked here during this time have shared in the: learning and research, discussions with customers about their needs, changing of lifestyle habits and being good examples of health, discovering new products, making positive impacts in our community and the world. Over these days we have made countless decisions about the best products we can carry. Years ago we added chocolate and wine, which we used to think should not be in a natural food store. We’ve stopped selling many products which seemed to have a good ingredients lists but are over-processed, or are not made by a trusted source, or other ways in which they weren't up to our standards. The nutritional supplements we carry are continually refined and expanded so that we are confident they are the most effective and safe.

We are about fair trade, organic, local, minimally processed, and countless other options that our customers want and that we value. We can’t always have “perfect” supplements and food, but we try to have the best balance of qualities at a reasonable price. We believe our customers can appreciate that what they see at Rebecca’s today is the refinement of countless choices we’ve made in days past. We want our customers to feel confident that our caring, research, and selection will continue in the days ahead.

Rebecca's community involvement is widespread. We aim to help as many schools, churches, co-ops, public agencies, nonprofits, civic groups, and more in their fundraising efforts through various donations and sponsorships. We involve ourselves in local endeavors such hosting booths at events like the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival, the Earth Week Eco Fair, and the Locavore Expo. Several of our employees formed Team Rebecca's to participate in the Mud Warrior race to benefit our local Hope Community Center. We are working to help sponsor the up-and-coming Common Ground Healing Arts center-- a local nonprofit wellness center committed to empowering our community to live a healthy lifestyle, with a unique way of providing services that makes wellness available to all members of our community, regardless of ability to pay.

Our business serves our community in other ways as well. We have always had a role in helping other small, local startup businesses break into retail. Charlottesville is full of creative, talented individuals with interesting, high-quality product ideas. People regularly come to us with items that they would like to sell. When those products meet our quality standards, we are happy to offer a venue to give them exposure. Over the years we have helped countless local small companies launch their products. It makes us feel good to watch them grow... for instance Bake 'MMM Bagels is now carried through a large distributor and can be found in stores across the northeast. Rebecca's was also instrumental in the success of we were the first vendor to sign on with them (originally they were called Retail Relay), giving credence to their vision and helping them attract their first customers and other vendors because of our good reputation.

Rebecca's is great because of our people. Our team is amazing! It is very unusual in a retail environment to have employees stay on for 5, 15, even 20+ years-- not just the Full Time staff, we have Part Time employees who have been here for 3-8 years as well-- and that speaks volumes about Rebecca's. We are a dedicated group who embrace the natural products lifestyle and are passionate about sharing our knowledge and experiences with our customers. We strive to be a resource for community education. We have often provided employees to give lectures at local businesses' health fairs, ACAC fitness and wellness center, Weight Watchers, and retirement communities. We have a member of our grocery department who has begun teaching a class on lactofermentation at our local Charlottesville Cooking School. When we renovated our space in 2007, we made provisions to allow for rearranging shelving units in order to have space to host in-store presentations given by a variety of community practitioners and educators on topics including: the Buteyko Breathing Method, Colic Consulting, a workshop on solid waste reduction (The Zero Garbage Challenge!), Airrosti musculoskeletal care, discussions about the Organic Farmers Against Monsanto lawsuit, and more. We have also hosted documentary film screenings at one of our local coffee shops that has space set up for such purposes.

Knowledge gives people the power to make the best decisions for their health. By continuing to offer the most comprehensive and current information for our customers that we possibly can, we can help our community and our business thrive.

on Aug 21, 2012

KeriAn, thank you so much for sharing about all that you do at Rebecca's Natural Food. Very inspiring and certainly good fodder for future blogs and articles. In fact, will you be at Natural Products Expo East in September? I would love to connect and see if we can get a picture of you (or someone else from Rebecca's) to feature in Natural Foods Merchandiser and on

Keep up the good work for the Charlottesville community!

KeriAn Dodson (not verified)
on Aug 22, 2012

Yes, we'll have a few of our people at Expo East (not sure yet if I can make it up this time around). Bill (he's our grocery department manager) and Brandon (she's our Vitamins and HABA department manager) are very photogenic :)

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2012

It is not all about Whole Foods. Many independents are doing it right, and doing it for longer that Whole Foods. Whole Foods is all about Corporate Concentration, Buying Power, and Exclusive Contracts, not good things for our industry

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2012

LOL. You go Rachel's! A lot more naturally-raised meat in your response than in the fluff piece about WF. LOL.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 22, 2012

I think its always done well because it serves a higher end clientelle like bristol farms and people make it a social event its just fun to go there see the variety of healthy choices in a community atmosphere.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 22, 2012

Whole Foods does well like Bristol Farms because of its quality variety and uniqueness. As a result of that focus it attracts higher end clientele that remain loyal to it. Ralphs is "choc a block" but Whole Foods has an ambience to it.

Michael Maddox (not verified)
on Aug 23, 2012

The Healthy Home Market started over 33 years ago providing a healthier choice of foods to the Charlotte North Carolina area.
Over the years we've grown to 5 stores by staying true to our identity. We take great pride in offering a wide selection of natural and organic bulk foods, groceries, meats and produce that are scrutinized for their quality and natural goodness. We may not be 100% politically correct in everything we sell but we constantly try and maintain that "difference" when it comes to leading a healthier lifestyle.
It is an on going battle with the larger corporate retailers. However we have survived for all these years for a reason.
Whole Foods is the corporate giant in America as we all know but there are still plenty of small independents across the country that are thriving in this arena.
Our employees are sincere in their values of customer service and product standards. It's that personal interaction that reflects in customer loyalty and retention that is lost in the big box retailers.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 23, 2012

What a ridiculous article! They are a wordwide company, with many stockholders! Of course it is all about the money!!! Who wrote this article??? Obviously one of their high-payed pr people! Very disappointed that new hope printed!

on Sep 12, 2012

One of our staff wrote this article and Whole Foods was not involved in any way to shape its content.

Jim Walton (not verified)
on Aug 25, 2012

Whole Foods is an American success story because of very intelligent corporate management from the top. But that doesn't mean that this should be a model for other natural foods businesses. The American consumer still craves - and rewards - diversity. There will always be a market segment which will discriminate between levels of authenticity, and truth in labeling. Ironically, Whole Foods is paving the way for its higher integrity competitors.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2012

Hello All, if you know of some company triying to expand its market in Mexico, let me know, I´m interest on investing in a business like this in Mexico.....

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 11, 2012

Our mission of providing certified organic, vegan, kosher, gluten free, allergen free, no refined sugar and NON GMO raw chocolate to the world is one we have stuck to for 6 years. Even though the costs of getting and staying certified is so high, we still stay credible to our customers and our retail stores by sticking to our mission of making the purest food on the planet. Our other important mission is taking care of our employees with free food in their lunchroom, free health insurance, etc. We are less profitable but have an amazing crew of employees who love their jobs and show it in their work.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 13, 2012

Taking care of employees -free food & health insurance-excellent example being set. While I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods unfortunately that's not their part of their mission-;(

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