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Now Open: Whole Foods’ Wellness Club

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Whole Foods opened its first of five pilot Wellness Clubs yesterday in Dedham, Mass., and judging from various reports and first impressions, the company’s message to its shoppers is clear: If you want to improve your health, look no further.

wellnessclub-logo-021.jpgForget about the spas, the fad diets, the cookbooks, the support groups and even the gym. Whole Foods’ new club combines all aspects of the whole health equation into a single destination. Shoppers can do yoga, meet with a nutrition counselor or take a healthy cooking class. They can organize a group hike or access the company’s reference library. And they can do it all right next to the produce department.

In terms of expanding the retailer’s role as a health destination, this is brilliant. Mainstream supermarkets have made substantial investments over the past few years in moving beyond just selling healthy foods and into the potentially profitable role as a nutrition and wellness counselor. They’ve rolled out labeling systems and clinics and hired dietitians — but they haven’t been able to match the perception of authority and authenticity that Whole Foods enjoys.

With the new wellness clubs, the company hopes to build on that image even further. Practically speaking, though, it won't be easy, since the program costs $199 to join and then $45 a month per person. That’s offset somewhat by 10% member savings on select products. Still, it’s asking a lot of even the company’s affluent customer base in this economy. Don’t forget, Whole Foods itself had to retool its price image in the wake of the recession. A lot of people are still in saving mode, and I’d doubt the average Whole Foods shopper would drop her gym membership to be part of an as-yet-unproven retail health club.

Then again, if anybody can do this right now, it’s Whole Foods. The company has a hot hand once again, having deployed that heavy dose of value marketing to convince its shoppers to come back. Indeed, the company seems to have learned its lesson — that even it isn’t immune to the vagaries of the economy — and continues to offer a deal for every indulgence, as evidenced by the 10% savings to wellness club members.

As a final note, it’s interesting that Whole Foods isn’t positioning its wellness clubs as a weight loss solution, per se. There’s a youtube video showing a team member who lost weight through the program, but no specific mention of the clubs as a “great way to lose weight” or anything similar. I’d imagine that’s partly the Whole Foods customer, who is already pretty healthy and skeptical of grand claims like this. But it’s also widening the net, establishing wellness as not just something unhealthy consumers need to work on. In other words, it’s a lifestyle.

Expect to hear more from me on this topic, with a Whole Foods wellness club set to open in New York City on October 17th.

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