retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

"Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron: Proven Technology.  Innovative Thinking.  Intelligent Solutions for Fresh.

Content Guy's Note: "Fresh Talk" is an MNB feature that alternates on Wednesdays with "Kate's Take."  It will examine all aspects of "fresh," in both the broadest and most focused meaning of that term (depending on the whims of the columnist). "Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron...which you can learn more about here…but which has no input into the subjects covered or responsibility for the attitudes taken.

There is a long piece on the Washington Post website about the 18,000 square foot store that Whole Foods plans to open in the Englewood section of Chicago, described as a "desolate stretch of city" that has, over the past few decades, gone into a stead spiral of decline, losing the local and chain retailers that once dotted its corners.

According to the story, "The grocer, which has built its fortunes and reputation anchoring condo developments in wealthy enclaves, has never gone into a neighborhood like this. But last year, to the disbelief of many, the company announced plans to open a store in 2016 here, in one of Chicago’s most economically depressed neighborhoods … This store, though, is no act of philanthropy. Nor is it a bet, by Whole Foods, on neighborhood change. The arrival of its gleaming stores in a neighborhood often signals the influx of wealthier residents. But that is not likely to happen in Englewood, at least not any time soon. Whole Foods is planning to sell olive oil and snap peas to the people who live here now. It is also planning, in the process, to make money."

The Post goers on to suggest that "Whole Foods is gambling that it can tailor its high-priced brand to a low-income market. It’s gambling that it can create customers out of people who out of necessity have long shopped at corner stores and Save-A-Lot. It’s gambling that it may even change what some of them eat."

What's interesting about the story and its description of what Whole Foods says it is trying to do in Chicago is that they seem to be focused on offering an authentic Whole Foods experience - when they've suggested that the store could have a greater focus on lower-cost private label products than other stores, the notion has been rejected. People seem to want an actual Whole Foods, even as they acknowledge that pricing will have to be adjusted if the store is to have any chance of succeeding. And people have to be careful about describing the store as "a socioeconomic experiment," as the Chicago Tribune did in a recent article - because the people living in the neighborhood don't think of themselves that way, and don;t want to see themselves described that way. They're not an experiment … this is their lives.

If you're interested in the details, you can read the entire story here.

One point seems clear. To make this store work, Whole Foods may have to be as disciplined as it ever has been. It is going to have to manage its inventory - fresh and otherwise - extremely carefully, keyed to the demands and requirements of the local population.

As the Post writes, "Whole Foods has never closed one of its stores," and leadership doesn't intend this one to be the first: "If anyone is motivated to make this store viable, it’s Whole Foods, precisely because it’s coming into the neighborhood to run a business, not a charity. And it has signed a long-term lease."