Amazon bought Whole Foods because it was bored and really, who doesn’t love Whole Foods?. On the surface, it seems to fit, but what if it doesn’t?
You pull into the parking lot. Depending on where in the country you are, you’re flanked on both sides by Subarus, Priuses, or Range Rovers, a variety appropriately indicative of the cult of personality Whole Foods has established. After passing through a bar patio inhabited only by a fedora-wearing dad seeking escape in a $7 IPA and email, and navigating through a seasonally-adjusted maze of fresh herbs, you enter the store.
It’s familiar but different. You’ve obviously been to the grocery store before – No one decides, “Today will be my first ever trip to the grocery store, and it’s gonna be Whole Foods.” There are aisles, a bakery section, a deli, fresh produce, but there’s also more. If you know one thing about Whole Foods, it’s that it’s expensive – So expensive that the math doesn’t work unless you remember to factor in a “fuck you, bet you’ll still buy it” to the price. But what you may not know is that going to Whole Foods is a wonderful experience. Aside from the samples of things that have 0% chance of ever being bought, there are also items you never knew you wanted. Fresh-caught fish ($24 per fillet), coffee beans that some guy in your neighborhood personally brought back from Jamaica ($19/lb), carrots that were grown using the cleanest agricultural processes imaginable only 30 miles from where you currently contemplate financing them – “Sure it’ll be a little more credit card debt, but it’s an investment in my long-term health. An investment in me.” All of it calling out directly to you.
And this is why the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods is so confusing. Using Amazon is antithetical to everything that keeps Whole Foods thriving. You order something on Amazon specifically because you want to avoid the possibility that your emotions could get the best of you. You’re admitting, “Hey, I totally dropped the ball on buying and sending a Mother’s Day gift this year, but Amazon is telling me I’ve got 36 minutes to order for it to get there in time.” You use it to save your soul from having to navigate a parking lot full of people and a 25-minute wait at the register just to buy aluminum foil and garlic salt after work. Everything about it is focused on removing the experience of shopping – About taking the emotional impact of goods out of the equation and helping you make only the soundest, most economical choice with your money. The only semblance of an emotional appeal on Amazon is the $4 accessory that “Customers Also Bought” – The online equivalent of the People Magazine you could read for free online but choose to buy anyway.
And yet Amazon paid $14 billion for the retailer. Maybe Amazon fell victim to the emotional traps so deviously set by Whole Foods’ yoga mom poachers. They got a $22 package of elk ravioli and on their way out, decided to buy the entire company. Obviously, people have, and will, point to the ability of Amazon to deliver Whole Foods items to Prime customers, and to offer yet another checkpoint in their logistics empire, but does anyone really want to shop at Whole Foods if it doesn’t involve going to Whole Foods?
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Also published on Medium.