I continue to get questions about the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods Market – A company I spent from the late 70s to 2001 working full time to build into the company it became. My first year at WFM the sales were 140 million. The year I left, they were 2.2 billion. My M.O. was to push in every way I knew how to improve quality of product and customer service. But the company who owns all the stores now is all about price and convenience. While Amazon is busy figuring out how they can deliver products to your car without the keys, I wish there was someone working with that same amount of effort towards improving the quality of the products in the store. But it’s my intuition that Amazon is more interested in the real estate of WFM, strategic locations in every major market in the country, than the grocery business. I received a direct mail promotional flyer last week promising new low prices on items in the bulk bins. Hey Amazon, I’m not interested in lower prices – I want better, fresher products in the bulk bins! With all the different food companies using low price as a way to position their company and get people in the door (Costco, Wal-Mart, Food Lion, Sam’s Club, and every other supermarket chain) doesn’t it make sense for one company to sell on the highest quality??
Here’s a quote I used to inform my strategy during my retail food days:
“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When
you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay
too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you
bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The
common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a
lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well
to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will
have enough to pay for something better.” – John Ruskin
Here’s a story that illustrates that point: I had a dinner party a long time ago, but I can still remember it vividly. I decided to make a lamb and white bean stew. The meal was in the cold-weather months, and I decided that a slow-braised lamb stew would be good on a cold evening – and I could do it ahead of time so I could visit with the guests instead of doing a lot of last minute work in the kitchen. But the white beans were old, and wouldn’t cook back to a buttery bite – even with soaking and hours and hours of simmering. I would have been happy to pay a little more for fresh beans – because all the money I spent on the lamb, chopping the vegetables, etc were lost – because one of the ingredients of my stew was not capable of doing what I bought it to do – because it was old. Old beans don’t make you sick – they’re just not capable of being pleasurable at the table.
The next time I was in the store a few days later, I mentioned to the highest ranking member of the team I could find ‘Look, I know you’re going to give me my money back but that’s not what I want. All my time, and my meal was spoiled because your beans were no good. I’d rather not have my money back and have you fix the problem.’ But anybody at the store level can’t fix that problem.
There was some talk that Amazon, being so good at logistics, could fix things like this at Whole Foods, and I’m sure hoping that will happen. And really, that’s some of my motivation for writing this.
When you’re in the food business, you hear a lot of people talk about quality control. I think you need to work towards quality improvement – you’ll be sure that the quality will not decline if you’re always trying to make it better.