But They’re Crunchy!

Forbes has a strange article about Whole Foods up. I don’t shop at Whole Foods because, as the article notes, it is quite expensive, and as the article doesn’t mention, they are anti-labor. But my not shopping there has nothing to do with the article, which notes that Whole Foods is wildly successful, earning a profit-rate 3 times higher than the average supermarket and dominating the health-food/organic/gourmet market. Super-crazy capitalist success story, you’d think. But then why is Forbes — essentially capitalism-porn — so dismissive? Listen:

Just about every food has a story behind it at this small but remarkably profitable chain, known for luminous, loving displays of succulent and savory foodstuffs and prices so obscenely high they prompt gasps of disbelief. Every Whole Foods store is a bountiful temple of wholesome eco-righteousness, a refuge from fears (valid or not) of synthetic pesticides, growth hormones and genetically modified Frankenfoods. (Emphasis added)

The whole article is like that — from the title, “Food Porn”, to a sidebar entitled “More Organic Than Thou”. The contempt with which the author (one Seth Lubove) holds Whole Foods (and their customers) is palpable in sentences like “Mackey [founder and CEO of Whole Foods] further entices the Volvo and Range Rover set by promoting do-gooder causes, from more humane treatment of farm animals and “bird-friendly” coffee to “sustainable” seafood…” and depictions of the chain as “a glutton’s paradise” that hypocritically “present[s] food as theater, playing up the pious organic angle even as it peddles tempting offerings of culinary excess.”

Now, if Whole Foods was any other corporation — say, Enron — you know Forbes would be on its knees begging to “service” Mackey. Whole Foods is practically a case-study in free marketeering: find an underserved market niche and serve it, innovatively and profitably. No other supermarket has come even close to the success Whole Foods has had in its niche — and in fact, some of them aren’t doing as well as Whole Foods in their own markets! They’re incredibly profitable, driving costs up because their market will bear it, underpaying employees and breaking unions — what Dow-fearing capitalist could object to that?

The only explanation I can think of is hinted at in the last paragraph: “Beneath this booming business, however, Whole Foods still hews to its hippie, health-food roots.” That they are, in fact, the “granola-crunching hippies” that the company’s co-president Walter Robb insists they aren’t. Or, more importantly, maybe, that their customers are granola-crunching hippies, wooly-headed liberals that refuse to swallow the industry wisdom that agri-chemical farming, heavy hormone use, anti-environmental policies, and the like are Good Things. As Doc Searls has noted repeatedly, a lot of corporate-types simply abhor their customers (not least by thinking of us as “consumers”, passive open mouths at the end of corporate-controlled production and distribution conduits). Although I won’t shop there, it has to be noted that Whole Foods has succeeded — has succeeded even in bilking its customers — by treating their customers as people and their customers’ concerns as important and valid ones. And that goes flatly against the central principle of “Forbes Capitalism”: Give the customers what they want, as long as what they want is what we’re giving them.

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