Whole Foods CEO John Mackey: Marketing Genius or Out-of-Touch Schmuck?

This story, as they say, has legs.

Katherine Goldstein, Green editor at Huffington Post, has a poll up connected to this post about the backlash against Whole Foods that I wrote about earlier today. Her poll shows that 55% are "outraged" and won't ever shop at Whole Foods again. Obviously its not a scientific poll but with over 600 comments currently up on Katherine's post, the progressive community is not letting this issue die down so easily.

Nor should they. I think it's far past time that liberals confront what my good friend and fellow blogger, Lee Zukor (he of Simple, Good and Tasty fame), the "Whole Foods Illusion." So what is the Whole Foods Illusion? Well, as Lee said in his comment to my earlier post, the idea "that we can shop the same way we always do in a big supermarket, pay a bit more, and feel good about ourselves." Lee is exactly right. If you care about the environment, if you care about small local farmers, if you care about the food you eat and your consumption habits, then Whole Foods gives you the illusion that you are doing good. But you really aren't, not for the most part. Most of Whole Foods produce is not local, they have a shoddy environmental record, and even the term organic means much less than it used to, partly due to Whole Foods' influence.

True advocates in the local sustainable world have known about Whole Foods' shame for a while now. It's telling that it took a very public spat that wasn't even about food (ZOMG!), to disconnect upscale liberal shoppers from what was, for them, a cathedral of sorts. Whole Foods, as Radley Balko said in his wonderful post on the subject, "is everything leftists talk about when they talk about "corporate responsibility."" It sure was.

That's not all.

I think this story is, to use a current buzzword, a "teachable moment." Later in the day, the same brilliant and gifted Lee Zukor proffered another gem when he asked me if John Mackey knew what would happen when he posted his controversial op-ed. If he did know, and presumably the CEO of a very successful company such as his would know a lot about his customers, and deliberately decided to rock the boat anyway, might it be a way to bring more conservative-minded shoppers into his store? I have no way of knowing, but if this was the intention, his tactics are brilliant for two reasons.

Boycotts Don't Work. Simple as that.

And don't take my word for it, take Megan McArdle's, hands down one of the best bloggers on the interwebs, and a major influence. Megan writes:

Not that I'm exactly sweating for the fortunes of Whole Foods. Quick: name the last time a consumer boycott achieved a result of any significance. (Getting American Airlines to stop using animals in its ads doesn't count.) I have to go all the way back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Here's why boycotts don't work: the vast majority of customers don't care. And yes, that includes the vast majority of Whole Foods customers, a surprising number of whom drive SUVs and even--I swear!--occasionally vote Republican. Now consider the demographic that cares enough about health care to actually boycott a company over it. Most of them are a) wonks or b) political activists. The latter group is disproportionately young and does not spend a great deal of money on groceries. The former group is tiny.

You may get a large number of people who say they'll boycott Whole Foods. But then when they're out of extra-virgin olive oil and the Safeway doesn't have organic, and the nearest Trader Joe's is a twenty-five minute drive away through traffic--they'll shop at Whole Foods. Three weeks later, they'll have managed to forget that they ever intended to stop shopping at Whole Foods. The stores are successful because they dominate their market niche, putting together a collection of things in one store that you would ordinarily have to go to several stores for. Shopping in multiple places is a big pain in the butt.

Conservatives are now free to walk around the aisles!

Something that I have been working long and hard on is about to happen, and that is that conservative shoppers will now feel more enfranchised to shop at Whole Foods. When it comes to the culture war, which like it or not conservatives still think and care about, they'll know that John Mackey stood up for what he believed in, even in the face of a customer base that was likely to get very, very angry at him for doing so. Conservative shoppers will respect that. And they'll put aside their long established suspicion of the company now that they've seen Mackey's stripes. This is a huge moment, and one that all local foods advocates should seize upon.

Because the reality is this: the progressive boycott of Whole Foods will fail, and an entire segment of the country that never ever would have come to terms with organic produce and products, will now be engaging with them head on. This is a huge victory. I fully expect to see Whole Foods' revenue bounce from this. Let's not let this opportunity be wasted.