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Whole Foods Finds Smooth Sailing at High Altitude

Whole Foods Finds Smooth Sailing at High Altitude

In the rugged mountain towns of Colorado, many local residents are quite fond of poking fun at the flatlanders from Texas.

Texans' cars, native Coloradoans will tell you, are often spotted wedged into snowbanks alongside the state's highways, victims of a scenic but treacherous network of roadways that doesn't forgive drivers accustomed to going miles without a curve.

So the consumers in Boulder, Colo., would be justified if they were a little suspicious of the folks from Austin, Texas, who have taken over the brand-new Wild Oats headquarters. Whole Foods Market had the money to buy out homegrown Wild Oats Markets, but does the well-to-do tourist from Texas have what it takes to navigate in the town that is the pinnacle of the natural and organics lifestyle?

According to one analyst, some devoted Wild Oats shoppers in Colorado were concerned that Whole Foods would raise prices at Wild Oats, or eliminate some of their favorite local products.

But a picture has emerged showing that Whole Foods is fitting into its new environs just fine, and consumers have begun showing their approval by opening their hemp-cloth wallets. Sales at acquired Wild Oats stores overall have risen with just a few merchandising tweaks and an upgraded perishables offering, according to Whole Foods' latest earning report.

Whole Foods' decisions to retain the Ideal Market banner, a longtime Boulder fixture, and to return one store to its former incarnation as natural food pioneer Alfalfa's Market illustrate the company's commitment to Boulder's crunchy heritage. The expansion of its downtown store and the experimental format it is planning by converting one Wild Oats location into a new concept dubbed Whole Foods Express also bode well for consumers in the market.

As the story beginning on Page 9 illustrates, Boulder also has plenty of alternatives for shoppers, which should help keep Whole Foods' competitive edges sharp. This month marks the debut of Sunflower Farmers Market in the city, backed by a fresh infusion of expansion capital, and locally owned Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers provides an authentic and low-priced alternative for the all-natural consumer. In addition, Safeway and Kroger-owned King Soopers each have a store in town offering extensive selections of local, natural and organic products.

One potential negative impact of the takeover — the elimination of the top-level employees at Wild Oats' headquarters — has been mitigated in part by the high demand for such skills. Many of the buyers and category managers quickly found work with other companies in the industry, including some who were able to stay in Boulder. Whole Foods kept many of the lower-level office workers and the majority of the store-level employees, local sources told SN.

The region's many vendors of natural and organic products also could stand to benefit from the takeover of Wild Oats. Mark Dusza, who runs an organic food brokerage in Boulder, said Whole Foods has gone out of its way to accommodate some local suppliers that had counted on Wild Oats as a major customer.

“Whole Foods is a good local citizen,” said one local observer.

Even if they are from Texas.