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Whole Foods Talks Reimagining Grocery Retail

At P2PI's Future Forward event, Christine Sturch shared some of the biggest changes the retailer is making based on customer feedback, including its forthcoming urban small format and other elements Whole Foods hasn’t edited in more than 40 years.
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Whole Foods Market’s Christine Sturch was very candid Tuesday during a fireside chat on the future of grocery retail with the Path to Purchase Institute’s editorial director Jessie Dowd at Future Forward in Philadelphia.

Sturch — who is principal design and innovation team leader of the store design team — shared insights gleaned from shopper interviews and didn’t shy away from pain points and lessons learned. 

She shared some of the biggest changes Whole Foods is making based on customer feedback, including its forthcoming urban small-format Whole Foods Market Daily Shop and other elements the retailer hasn’t edited in more than 40 years. 

“We are constantly pushing the envelope in design, but what's most important is that our customer has a seat at the table [to inform] why we do things,” Sturch said. “It can't just be all internal insights and it can't be all Amazon analytics and data ... so the customer really is the third leg.” 

Positive Customer Insights

When asked about Whole Foods’ “wow” moments in stores, many shoppers said the retailer enables them to be a healthier and more knowledgeable version of themselves, according to Sturch.

“They believe that when they come to Whole Foods, they're going to be more in the know with food standards and industry standards,” she said. “So it's really critical that the products we put on our shelves hold true through [labeling, packaging and messaging].”

Customers also respond positively to Whole Foods’ sensory displays. Sturch said these artful displays create a more enjoyable experience and environment that appeals to all the senses and encourages discovery.

Feedback also pointed to a sense of “organization and calm” customers feel shopping at Whole Foods. Sturch said this is extremely important for suppliers because they see a connection between the environment and customers’ willingness to discover and try new and local products.  

Constructive Customer Insights

Customers emphasized three key areas that Sturch said are being addressed with store design alterations.

  • First, “crossover congestion” in stores. Basically, having store associates and customers shopping at the same time (associates to fulfill delivery and pickup orders) dilutes the customer experience.   
  • Second, a decline in the store aesthetic, which Sturch credited to its quick roll out of staging areas in the front of stores for online orders. She said it congests the cafes, entryways and vestibules and plainly put, just “isn’t attractive.” 
  • Third, missed opportunities for sales from the 70% of Whole Foods customers that buy online and come in the store to pick up their order. Sturch said only 10% of those shoppers add to their basket once in-store.

“This is our most powerful and engaged shopper — the shopper that buys online and buys in stores — and we want to see that group grow,” Sturch said.

What Whole Foods is doing about it

Sturch said to improve these key areas, her team is focusing on the store design. In the pickup areas, they’re exploring ways to grow baskets further, not just with the forgotten items. She said they know that shoppers picking up groceries are more inclined to add prepared foods when in-store.

To address the decline in good ambiance in stores and reduce crossover congestion, Stitch said they’re opening “dark stores” that provide space for associates to shop for online orders without cluttering the sales floor. They’ve already opened one dark store in Brooklyn.

In terms of aesthetics, Sturch said they are considering adding a new department for the first time in over 40 years. It would be near the pickup and return counter and maintain the same look and feel as the rest of the store and isn't just coolers and freezers in the front of the store.

Technology’s role

The number one area Sturch said they’re always trying to revise and reduce friction is the checkout area. She said before Amazon, the “sense of registers” hadn’t changed at Whole Foods in 40 years. 

“We swung the pendulum pretty far when we implemented the Just Walk Out technology into two Whole Foods sites,” Sturch said. “We went too far, we did too much, and our shoppers didn’t respond well to it,” she added. “They said it felt cold and counterintuitive to how they wanted to end their shopping experience. It ultimately did not reduce friction in the front end because there was something called receipt latency where the customers didn't get their receipts for an hour or two after exiting the store. … Ultimately, it added friction.”

However, Sturch said they’re learning from their mistakes and just reopened one of the two Just Walk Out Whole Foods stores, this time though it is not entirely cashierless.

Daily Shop 

Additionally, Sturch said a major priority is providing convenience at every corner, thus Whole Foods’ latest innovation: the Daily Shop, which will debut by the end of 2024. 

The concept was designed to provide shoppers in urban, dense markets with a quick-stop shop when they just need a few items. It will add “convenience and quality” in a walkable distance from its bigger Whole Foods stores. 

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