Published on: July 22, 2015by Kate McMahon
There’s no shortage of irony that the name of the Official Whole Foods Market blog is Whole Story.
Customers outraged about the most recent Whole Foods overcharging tempest claim the high-end grocer is telling them anything but the whole story.
To recap: New York City consumer officials on June 24 accused Whole Foods of “systemic overcharging for pre-packaged foods” in eight stores -- ranging from an overage of 80-cents for a bag of pecan panko to a whopping $14.84 for a package of coconut shrimp. Inspectors called it “the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers” with 80 tested packages showing incorrect weights. (Costco was slapped with $800,000 in fines after similar charges in California last year.)
In a strident, defensive statement to the media, Whole Foods called these latest allegations “overreaching” and criticized the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs of “grossly excessive monetary demands” and using the media “to coerce us.”
Consumers lit up social media, ripping the grocer frequently referred to as “Whole Paycheck” for ripping them off at the register for such in-store, pre-packaged basics as chicken tenders, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
"Shame on you, Whole Foods! I was aware that your prices were ridiculously high but to lie to your customers & blatantly rip them off, shame, shame," wrote one Facebook user.
Five days later it was time to cue the spin control team. Whole Foods co-CEOs Walter Robb and John Mackey posted a calm, contrite two-minute video on Whole Story and YouTube, changing the corporate tune.
"Straight up, we made some mistakes, we want to own that, and tell you what we’re going to do about that," said Robb, standing alongside a similarly casually-clad Mackey.
He said the errors were inadvertent, sometimes in the customer’s favor and occurred “because it's a hands-on approach to bringing you the freshest
food." After placing the blame on employees, the pair said increased training and third party oversight would remedy the problem.
The statement didn’t quell the criticism, and the thousands of views on YouTube generated comments such as these:
• “So basically, ‘We were greedy and now really sorry that we got caught.’ "
• “Consultant-speak like ‘Straight up, we’re gonna own that’ doesn't reassure a doubting customer like me. And it embarrasses your employees. Try saying the words ‘We're sorry,’ you over-managed pair of idiots. Until then, I'm shopping for my family elsewhere."
Not surprisingly, the comments on the Whole Story blog page were more supportive of the company’s response than elsewhere on social media. Whole Foods does have a devoted following in its 400 stores across the U.S., Canada and U.K., and the blog openly says it will edit comments deemed off-topic, hostile or insulting (we presume that would including calling the co-CEOs an “over-managed pair of idiots”).
Mackey and Robb closed the video by saying any consumer who found a package mislabeled “not in your favor” would receive a refund and the item for free, and they promised to read all of the customer feedback on the issue.
This much-publicized New York brouhaha comes at a critical time for Whole Foods, which just announced plans to launch its new lower-cost chain of stores “365 by Whole Foods” in 2016.
The smaller “365” stores are aimed at the Millennials, who are not long-time Whole Foods devotees and are both price-conscious and social media savvy. In short, their target audience is the most likely to read snarky comments about the pricey grocer gouging unsuspecting customers.
To get beyond this, I think it is incumbent upon Whole Foods to get its weights-and-measures house in order and its whole story straight before reacting. One more perceived “thumb-on-the-scale” incident could lead to a whole exodus by customers who can now find quality organic products at their local supermarket, Sprouts, Target, Walmart, Trader Joe’s or Amazon. For a whole lot less.
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