- One year after opening, a Whole Foods store in the low-income community of Englewood is fighting to stay relevant, according to The Chicago Tribune. The store has provided local jobs and won over some shoppers, but is struggling to gain wider acceptance from area shoppers, many of whom live on a fixed income.
- The location offers staple goods at lower prices than other Whole Foods locations. The company has also provided shelf space for around 40 local vendors, and runs classes and other events aimed at drawing customers into the store. A Friday night wine and food pairing promotion has proven to be a surprising success.
- Out of Whole Foods’ 460 stores, four currently operate in impoverished neighborhoods. Whole Foods officials said they view stores like Englewood as a mission-based effort. Walter Robb, the company’s former co-CEO and chairman of the Whole Cities Foundation, told the Tribune, “Englewood is the biggest challenge we’ve ever undertaken as a company trying to serve a community.”
Whole Foods’ specialty products and historically high prices don’t seem like a very good fit for low-income neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, Newark and other cities. But according to the company, it’s on a mission to improve communities by providing good jobs, access to fresh foods and by serving as a unifying presence through events and various outreach programs.
Whole Foods is doing more than most grocers to address food deserts, where access to fresh food is scarce. At the same time, the specialty grocer wouldn’t be in these areas if it didn’t see a business opportunity. According to the Tribune, several other businesses are slated to open around the Whole Foods store in Englewood. The area has already seen a Starbucks and Chipotle move in recently, so the location is shaping up to be a pocket of commerce in an otherwise low-income area.
The store has drawn some dedicated shoppers, and specialty promotions have been unexpectedly successful. The company also prices many staple products below those found at other Whole Foods locations. But many shoppers have kept their distance, preferring to visit discount stores like Aldi instead.
“I’ve been in there a couple times, but I try to stick to my budget. I have kids,” one resident told the Tribune.
In addition to a high-price image, Whole Foods is battling charges that it’s speeding gentrification rather than strengthening communities. In Newark, where Whole Foods has become part of a revitalization effort that includes luxury apartment buildings, a Marcus Samuelsson restaurant and other developments, residents say the changes are aimed at drawing wealthy new residents rather than helping existing ones, according to a recent New York Times story.
Whole Foods will continue to battle these perceptions, and to its credit the company has provided dozens of jobs to local residents along with dedicating shelf space to locally made products. One entrepreneur who makes hair care products targeted to black women has grown from the Englewood location to three additional stores.
What will ultimately lure more customers, though, is lower prices. New owner Amazon made a lot of noise — if not much actual impact — with its opening week price cuts, and aims to bring down prices throughout the store. The success of this effort in places like Englewood and Newark could very well gauge Whole Foods’ ability to draw new shoppers to its stores.