Some of the industry experts on the RetailWire BrainTrust saw one big hindrance standing in the way of the stated goal.
“I admire Mr. Buechel’s insight and his desire to connect with Whole Foods ‘heritage values,’” wrote Gary Sankary, retail industry strategy at Esri. “I do wonder how that will work when those values conflict with Amazon’s
Mr. Buechel, who will replace Whole Foods’ co-founder John Mackey on Sept. 1, noted that there has been “just a lot of change within the company over the last five to six years” following Amazon.com’s 2017 acquisition. He particularly called out “distractions” over the last two years as the safety of associates and customers, as well as supply chain challenges, became a priority.
“My only advice would be that talking is easy, walking is hard,” wrote Ryan Mathews, CEO of Black Monk Consulting. “It isn’t fair to judge a new executive’s potential based on the obligatory values babble that is apparently de rigueur for all incoming CEOs, but pandemics, recessions and inflation aren’t ‘distractions’ at least to folks earning less than six figures — like, say, Whole Foods retail workers.”
“One of my top goals is to reignite the connection to our higher purpose, mission and core values with our team members,” said Mr. Buechel. “We’ve been through a lot.”
“Reconnecting with the Whole Foods’ ‘higher purpose’ can’t be done as long as Amazon holds the keys,” wrote Jeff Weidaeur, principal at SSR Retail, on RetailWire. “After five years it’s clear that Amazon doesn’t really know what to do with Whole Foods — there is no overarching purpose or meaning apparent any longer. It’s little more than an Amazon locker that sells food.”
And strategy was not the only concern that the BrainTrust had about Whole Foods’ ties to the Amazon mothership.
“Perception is reality,” wrote Brian Delp, CEO of New Sega Home. “Whole Foods will never be able to shake consumer awareness that it is attached to Amazon. This association completely distracts from an efforts made towards a high-purpose and will always negate efforts unless it’s separated in the future.”
Mr. Buechel, who has worked alongside Mr. Mackey as COO since 2019, said a major change under Amazon’s ownership has been investing aggressively in prices that he believes have attracted new customers and better positioned the chain for current inflationary pressures.
“Our price perception is in a better place now,” said Mr. Buechel. “And as we look at the broader market, we’re really proud of where we show up, especially on entry-level price points for high-quality products.”
Amazon has also helped Whole Foods embrace a “long-term vision” to support investments in areas such as price and supply chain as well as the chain’s broader mission of elevating quality and ethical standards in the grocery space. As a public company, quarterly growth and profit targets were often prioritized, but Amazon ownership has helped Whole Foods explore what they are “going to do in 10 years that’s going to change the world,” according to Mr. Buechel.”
For some on the BrainTrust, though, Whole Foods’ vision has been a slightly blurry one.
“In my opinion, Whole Foods is a good retailer but it is a very long way from being a great retailer,” wrote Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData. “While the company does a good job on areas like the health and provenance of food, it does a poorer job on range innovation, taste and experience. In a retailer like Wegmans, I am blown away by the private label innovation, the excellence of the products and the experience they create in-store. By contrast Whole Foods is pretty bland. To justify the higher costs — and let’s be honest here, Whole Foods is still high price even though they have done more with value tiers — Whole Foods needs to deliver far more than it presently does.”
“Pre-Amazon Whole Foods was not really ‘killing it’,” wrote Mr. Sankary. “I think it’s admirable to want to focus on doing ‘good,’ but at the same time they need to remember the issues they’ve had in the past and not repeat those.”
However others like professor Gene Detroyer were more impressed by the prospects for where the chain is headed.
“I believe Mr. Bueschel is spot on with his assessment of Whole Foods and its future,” wrote Mr. Detroyer. “I give a big bravo to his comment — [about what] Whole Foods is ‘going to do in 10 years that’s going to change the world.’ That type of thinking will surely give them a leg up in the future and we would be hard-pressed to name other retailers thinking the same way.”