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Community: Whole Foods Stays on the Leading Edge

The recent announcement by Whole Foods Market that it would require labeling of all products containing genetically modified ingredients by 2018 was just the latest in a long series of leading-edge positions taken by the Austin, Texas-based company.

From sustainability to humane treatment of livestock, Whole Foods has taken leadership positions on issues it feels are important to its customers.

“It is an integral part of the company,” said Andrew Wolf, a Richmond, Va.-based analyst with BB&T Capital Markets. “It’s the difference between a mission and a tactic or even a strategy. The mission they have around whole food is essential to the store.”

While many retailers have also embraced issues such as these — and some, such as Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, take them even further — Whole Foods stands out by being the largest and most visible retailer to take such positions. It also is often the first to get attention.

“They are at the vanguard of all these things,” said Wolf. “They are leading the way on most of these issues.”

Wolf suggests a simple strategy for more traditional retailers seeking to tap into that type of community — simply play “follow the leader” and pick up on the issues that Whole Foods and some of the leading independent operators are rallying behind.

“There is nothing wrong with other companies tapping into what consumers are interested in, whether it is sustainable seafood or organic and natural products,” Wolf said.

The difference is that at Whole Foods those issues become part of its overall mission.

“Whole Foods can focus, because that’s all it does,” he said. “Other companies can’t have that focus, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be as sharp as they can within those constraints.”

Another lesson offered by Whole Foods is its strong communications around the issues it supports, including background information on its website.

“If you are serious about these issues, you want to educate the public about them,” said one competitor. “You don’t just do it as a marketing tool, you do it because it is a fundamental part of your identity.”

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