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Whole Foods Starts Over

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The new Health Starts Here program at Whole Foods Market launched at all of the chain’s 289 locations, and marks an interesting juncture in the evolution of the chain.

The retailer states the program is a “deepening of our commitment to healthy eating by providing education and support tools to inspire interest in foods that help improve and maintain health and vitality.”

wfm_credit.jpgYours truly thinks it’s more a case of Whole Foods getting back to basics after a period of fast living; if nothing else, there were some bouts of binge eating that saw the chain more focused on growth than reinforcing its core values.

The recession has changed all of that. Profits dropped, shoppers sought cheaper options and the company’s fabled double-digit expansion ground to a halt. With the truck by the side of the road and the engine smoking, it seemed a good time to take stock of the situation.

To kickstart slumping sales, Whole Foods introduced a number of money-saving promotions and has given its 365 private label a higher profile. That kept enough shoppers coming back, but the chain must have also realized that over the past few years, as it made appeals to more mainstream, casual shoppers, it was alienating its core customer.

This latest initiative should please everyone, because the beauty is that it gives Whole Foods much-needed cache as a destination for weight management and healthy living, while providing a perfect excuse for culling the aisles of products, added during the high-living years, that don’t really — and never did — fit in with its core mission.

Health Starts Here was first alluded to last summer, when, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (the infamous “We sell a bunch of junk” interview), CEO John Mackey said the healthy eating plan was being finalized and would be rolled out in the fall of 2009.

The program is also notable because it reflects a new core value, “Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education.” It’s the first time in a while that such a basic tenet has been added to the company’s mission statement.

Now, that’s a bit confusing. Since when has Whole Foods had to articulate such a goal? For years, I’ve been an casual, but consistent shopper, and have always seen and heard plenty about the products I was buying, or how the retailer operates. This transparency is a pillar of the Whole Foods shopping experience, and one I always have liked.

The recession and Whole Food’s own recent history (the rocky Wild Oats merger and Mackey’s careless internet message board postings as “Rahodeb”) has been a humbling series of experiences. Right now, we’re witnessing a company re-assessing itself and its purpose in the food retailing universe.

(Photo credit: Whole Foods Market)

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