The Internet loves to jokingly call it “Whole Paycheck.” But if a recent brush with the law is any indication, shopping at Whole Foods brings the pain to everyone’s pocketbook for a terrible and unnecessary reason.
Shoppers at the beloved market have largely remained in the dark. But New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs announced this week that an investigation into Whole Foods found that stores were consistently overcharging customers for prepackaged food. “The overcharges ranged from [80 cents] for a package of pecan panko to $14.84 for a package of coconut shrimp,” said the agency.
Whole Foods released its own statement on the matter, vehemently denying the allegations. That hasn’t stopped media coverage on what DCA Commissioner Julie Menin has called, “the worst case of mislabeling they [DCA inspectors] have seen in their careers.” If the DCA’s findings turn out to be true, thousands of New York Whole Foods stores will be subject to fines of up to $950 for first-time violations, and $1,700 for each one that follows.
Assuming the DCA knows what it’s talking about, the scandal surrounding Whole Foods isn’t likely to fade anytime soon. Nor should it, the evidence seems to be particularly indicative of egregious deception. However, it’s not as if we should be surprised by these revelations. Whole Foods hasn’t been completely forthright about pricing, and the DCA’s investigation into the business helps confirm suspicions that it’s playing fuzzy math.
Whole Foods has its fans. The socially conscious image appeals to consumers who not only care about what they eat, but about where what they eat comes from. Yet long before this latest controversy, Whole Foods has also elicited plenty of criticisms.
The Internet has led the charge in the war against Whole Foods, calling out contradictions such as the peddling of pseudoscientific snake oils, the actual health benefits of which are sketchy to say the least. Others have pointed out that the title of “organic” doesn’t necessarily denote the positive attributes many think it does. And let’s not forget the ways Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has alienated his customer base, by rallying against unions and making light of Obamacare and climate change.
More critically though, is the cost issue. Cries that Whole Foods equals “Whole Paycheck” came to a tipping point last year, as the company rolled out its first national brand marketing campaign, in an attempt to combat this perception. Because make no mistake, this perception is having very real financial repercussions for them.
Whole Foods … More like Whole Paycheck— EastCoastEmpress (@SoonToBeW) June 11, 2015
I love Whole Foods, not a fan of what it does to my paycheck though.— Kara Beth Karstedt (@KaraKarstedt) June 26, 2015
“Once the king of organic, Whole Foods has recently come under attack on all fronts,” Slate’s Alison Griswold wrote in July 2014. “After the company announced its second-quarter results in May, shares fell nearly 20 percent overnight on fears that the chain was losing its hold on the organic market.”
Whole Foods losing money selling overpriced food is sort of a fitting outcome. However, it remains determined to change both the negative aspects of its image, and to regain control of the organic market—even as more competitors come creeping in. “Whole Foods’s effort to ditch its ‘Whole Paycheck’ image has become increasingly urgent as big-name competitors like Walmart and Kroger Co. have stepped into the organic market,” Griswold noted. “The chain will continue to work on cutting its prices—an effort that hurts in the short term but is likely to bring back some customers.”
Meanwhile Whole Foods is also opening up a new chain of stores, designed to win back customers looking to save on groceries. These relatively stripped down, simpler locations will supposedly offer a “curated” section. In particular, it’s targeting young people who want organic food, without being forced to pay Whole Foods prices. It’s an initiative aimed at winning back all the customers who’ve jumped ship for the less-expensive Trader Joe’s.
In some ways, these efforts miss their mark, as they don’t answer the fundamental question behind Whole Foods’s culture crisis: Can you ever truly provide “good” food to people who can’t afford it? Charging an exorbitant amount for food that’s not worth it is one thing, but you know the whole system is out of whack when the average consumer can’t afford produce.
Consider the Whole Foods store that opened in Detroit, in the summer of 2013. The location was opened as an alternative, healthier shopping option for poorer neighborhoods. But when the store first opened, the numbers looked so bad, executives toyed with selling food more expensive than what’s offered at an average Whole Foods store. For instance, one popular item at the bakery was a single cupcake, baked in a half-pint jar, which cost $6. Ultimately though, sales doubled what the initial projections were, as the black citizens of Detroit came out in droves. This was no small feat, given that Whole Foods is notorious for being a store that caters to rich, white people.
But the store didn’t end up making access to healthier food any easier, only closer in proximity. “For anyone looking to address health and diet disparities, the lesson from Whole Foods in Detroit may well be that the problem is not food, but poverty,” concluded Slate’s Alison Griswold. “And that is a problem that requires more than a supermarket to solve.”
Granted, it’s not entirely Whole Foods’s fault that its products are so expensive; but the price-altering practices make the goods even less affordable. When it comes to adjusting prices to fit the market, a common industry practice, there’s little it can do to combat that. Still it’s important to stop pretending that Whole Foods is a savior.
Whole Foods is an expensive sideshow. If you can afford the food, you should feel free to shop there. But shopping at Whole Foods isn’t a viable, healthy alternative for most American families. “We don’t have a Whole Foods in these parts, but I hear from my more urban friends that there is a high price to be paid for all of that fresh, organic wonderfulness,” writes Salon’s Ann Nichols. “I know firsthand that the small selection of organic produce available at our grocery store, the local health food store and the food co-op is much more expensive than ‘regular’ produce at my grocery store, and that I pay farmers at the market at least 10 percent more per item than I would pay at said grocery.”
For people like Nichols, who want to spend the extra money, occasionally accepting Whole Foods’s pricing is a fine trade off for quality goods. But we shouldn’t look down our noses at those who won’t spend the extra money to eat healthy—that’s an economic necessity. It’s easy to praise Whole Foods for high-quality products and curse McDonald’s for dollar-menu mediocrities.
Whole Foods is just as much a part of the problem as McDonald’s is. Fast food is meant to be cheap, but good food is meant to be expensive. The problem with Whole Foods is that it’s exploiting an association between quality and expense, and its Web-friendly consumer base is starting to catch on.
Photo via Masahiro Ihara /Flickr (CC BY 2.0)