Are Whole Foods’ price cuts game-changing for food retailing?

Photo: RetailWire
Aug 29, 2017
Tom Ryan

On its first day of ownership on Monday, Amazon — as promised — lowered prices across a selection of staples at Whole Foods.

According to Bloomberg, categories at Whole Foods’ 57th Street location in Manhattan seeing cuts of between 33 and 48 percent included organic Fuji apples, to $1.99 a pound from $3.49; Whole Trade bananas, from 49 cents a pound from 79 cents; and animal-welfare rated, 85-percent lean ground beef, $4.99 a pound from $6.99. Items dropping between 13 and 15 percent included organic baby kale (per package), $3.49 from 3.99; and 365 Everyday Value Organic Butter (per pound/four sticks), $4.49 from $5.29. A dozen large brown organic eggs were reduced 7 percent to $3.99 from $4.29.

The items surveyed by Bloomberg had been expected to be lowered per a press release issued by Amazon on Friday after regulators approved the $13.7 billion takeover. The release indicated Whole Foods would also be offering in-store specials to Prime members, that Whole Food’s private labels would sell across Amazon’s platforms, and lockers would land in select Whole Foods locations to enable the pick-up/return of purchases.

Store visits by RetailWire showed the price reductions extended to some dairy items, cases of bottled water, frozen whole chickens and various pasta sauces, but not much beyond the 14 items mentioned in the release.

Indeed, the changes were barely perceptible inside stores. A small display of Amazon Echos sat alongside the produce department. Posters on front windows showing freshly-picked produce read, “We’re growing something good. This is just the beginning. Whole Foods Market + Amazon.”

Photo: RetailWire

The few staples receiving the price reductions came with hangtags promising “More to come…” Many in the industry expect other grocers will have to match a steady stream of cuts in other categories bound to arrive.

Moody’s lead retail analyst Charlie O’Shea said in an e-mail Monday, “As we have seen multiple times, and in multiple product segments, Amazon has the advantage of not facing the same scrutiny surrounding its profitability from its shareholders as other competitors, and we believe the company will continue to exploit this in the grocery segment.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What actions do you expect Amazon to take in recasting Whole Foods’ pricing stance? What other features of Amazon’s approach to Whole Foods revealed so far will be challenging for other food retailers to match?

"I can only hope that Amazon will not focus solely on price."
"Yes, it’s amazing how this story has garnered high-profile coverage while the facts spin out of control."
"There is a theme of Amazon disrupting verticals which incumbents strongly proclaim as un-disruptable. Grocery is one such category, I believe."

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39 Comments on "Are Whole Foods’ price cuts game-changing for food retailing?"

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Neil Saunders

At this stage, no. The selective price cuts are a step in the right direction, but they are hardly revolutionary — at most, they bring Whole Foods into line with other retailers. Our checks yesterday reveal that outside of fresh — in areas like household and ambient groceries — Whole Foods remains considerably more expensive than most other grocers.

I would never suggest that Whole Foods focus on price to the exclusion of everything else, but I refuse to buy things like Vitamin Water there at a temporarily-discounted price of $1.39 when it’s $0.88 at Target! Others will feel the same.

Whole Foods has a lot more work to do on pricing before it captures a larger share of wallet of existing customers and draws in new shoppers. That said, I think over time Amazon is ultimately prepared to make this investment — yesterday’s cuts were just the opening headline-grabbing salvo.

Bob Phibbs

I don’t see this as bringing in a much broader segment of the population. Their highly educated, disposable income-having target are less likely to rave that avocados are 30 cents cheaper but it follows Amazon’s pattern of dominating the news cycle with low prices. Whole Foods couldn’t make it work for many years and be profitable — Amazon can cut prices because of deep Wall Street pockets and their AWS. You have to wonder if it is really good for one company to be able to have such abilities divorced from being profitable.

Paula Rosenblum
Someone pointed out on Facebook that Amazon/Whole Foods got what amounted to a free ad on the front page of the Wall Street Journal because of this price cut. What’s ironic is that if you look at the list, the items in question were crazily overpriced before. For example, I learned when I moved to Miami that bananas grow like weeds (literally! They are almost impossible to get rid of) … none of the price cuts made me say anything beyond “well, it’s about time” and yet so many column inches were dedicated to them. I expect Amazon to lower prices and then slowly raise them. Plus, I think the company is about to find out you just don’t have the kind of pricing flexibility in stores that you do online. People have to actually DO something when you change those prices. There are laws in place. I suppose they can get around it by creating Prime-only prices, but they will also have to be careful to keep prices consistent across channels — just like everyone else. This will be fascinating to watch. If I was a grocery retailer I’d likely stay the course and do what I am good… Read more »
James Tenser

Yes, it’s amazing how this story has garnered high-profile coverage while the facts spin out of control. This morning I read an article that flatly stated Amazon had cut Whole Foods prices by 50%. No mention of the short list of items. No clarification that the largest item price reduction was in fact 43% and others are less. Once again the Amazon hype engine is blowing some intoxicating smoke.

Amazon/Whole Foods is in a unique position in that it could choose to set prices for some items that are not connected with the actual costs of procurement. It can certainly afford to use a few loss-leaders as trial balloons. Near-matching prices on a couple dozen items makes a statement that may drive curiosity among shoppers who have previously avoided the store. But the company should be mindful about the “fake news” this announcement has spawned. A price image is a delicate thing that depends greatly on trust.

Anne Howe

I visited the Lake Norman (NC) Whole Foods yesterday. Saw no evidence of those orange signs or price drops. If this combo is going to be a game-changer for grocery shoppers and convert shoppers from Harris Teeter, Publix and Earth Fare, they’d better do some obvious in-store events to capture attention.

Max Goldberg

With many grocers facing slim profit margins the last thing that they needed was Amazon cutting prices at Whole Foods, bringing the ability to better gather, analyze and use data, and taking a long-term view of profits and growth. Yet here we are. Amazon has taken a big step into brick-and-mortar retail. The only upside for grocers is that there are only around 460 Whole Foods stores.

Doug Garnett

Reports developed later in the day yesterday that many price cuts in the long run will only be available to frequent shoppers. That makes sense — business sense.

While Amazon has had the investor flexibility to run an unprofitable retail business online, there’s no indication investors will let that happen in Whole Foods where there’s risk of unprofitability rising to massive new levels very quickly.

But we will continue to see Amazon PR drive panics like yesterday where a mere announcement ends up reported far beyond what is actually said.

Ed Dunn
25 days 18 hours ago

Definitely looking forward to the headlines about Whole Foods “future concepts” of no-cashier checkout and self-driving shopping carts delivering groceries to numbered parking spaces after checkout — it works well for Amazon PR.

Richard Layman
25 days 16 hours ago

I think this is a very good point. If instead of creating a “loyalty card” system comparable to other supermarket firms, the Whole Foods loyalty program is an element of Amazon Prime, not a separate standalone initiative, it could make a big difference. For example, Dorothy Lane Market in Ohio and how they work their loyalty program.

They don’t want someone like me, who is a member of multiple loyalty programs, to get the best discounts from various stores. Instead, they focus on their best customers.

That’s the direction Amazon + Whole Foods should move towards. It’s dangerous for supermarkets because it will operate on a much bigger platform than a typical supermarket (outside of Kroger Marketplace, Fred Meyer, Meijers, and the HEB Plus formats).

Dick Seesel

I did a fast price check at the site for Metro Market (one of the Kroger divisions operating here in Milwaukee, and the sister brand of Mariano’s in Chicago). Its prices on organic bananas, eggs, butter and Fuji apples are already at or slightly below the new pricing at Whole Foods. (Its price on lean ground beef is 50 cents higher as of this morning.) What this points out is that Whole Foods had a pricing problem (“Whole Paycheck”) that Amazon is taking aggressive steps to correct.

Based on what happened to Costco’s and Walmart’s stock prices since Friday, there is a typical overreaction to the steps that Amazon is taking. Just keep in mind that Walmart and many other grocers are already competitive and Whole Foods is just joining the party. Also keep in mind that the Whole Foods brick-and-mortar footprint has a long way to go before it catches up with its competitors, despite the smart moves that Amazon is likely to make.

Ross Ely

Beyond these immediate high-visibility price changes, Amazon will likely focus much more on the integration of their digital properties with Whole Foods’ business. Expect to see much more linkage with Amazon Prime and programs like Subscribe and Save.

These features will appeal to Whole Foods’ traditional base of shoppers, but it’s not clear that they will attract new shoppers to Whole Foods, which will continue to be perceived as a premium brand.

Lee Kent

I can only hope that Amazon will not focus solely on price. Although Whole Foods is pricier than most grocers, their private-label goods are priced well and, as far as I can tell, doing well. Offering deals to Prime customers? Now that sounds like moving in the right direction. Pulling people into the store with Amazon lockers? Another good thought but hopefully they will merchandise properly to those people who might not otherwise have come into a Whole Foods. There is a lot to think about that goes beyond just price. And that’s my 2 cents.

Sterling Hawkins

Customer experience is front and center in just about everything Amazon does and pricing at Whole Foods is just one (high profile) component of that. I think Amazon is trying to shake the high-price image that Whole Foods historically has had to make it more value and experience based, consistent with the Amazon brand vs. just using it as a competitive strategy.

Phil Chang

As a consumer, I want Whole Foods to reliably drive down the price of organic so I can shop at Whole Foods for my family of five. Having said that, 14 items doesn’t make a new standard. It barely registers as competitive on price.

Probably more interesting than the 14 items is the speed at which an approved buy out has become operational control. I’m really excited to see how fast Amazon starts to move on getting craft brands into stores and how much more control they have before the official close of this deal at the end of the year.

Shep Hyken

So, the “Amazoning” of Whole Foods begins. If nothing else, this is causing a major buzz and resurgence of the announcement of the acquisition. Pricing may change at Whole Foods, but I doubt the level of quality, freshness, etc. will. That’s the reputation that Whole Foods is known for and wants to keep.

Ryan Mathews

First of all let’s remember we are talking about Whole Foods here. Cutting their prices starts to bring them in line with market pricing — not exactly the most revolutionary concept in retail history.

I assume Amazon will continue its downward pressure on pricing but I don’t think that’s going to move the industry as a whole to a series of radical en masse price cuts.

For me, the real challenge to other retailers is that Amazon continues to surround shoppers with an increasingly complete “consumption environment” in which they only have to deal with Amazon to satisfy a growing percentage of their routine shopping needs.

If it works, it will be an-all-but unbeatable strategy.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Amazon continues to be the thorn in the side of most food retailers. Now that it has made a significant transition into the brick-and-mortar space, it is firing a warning shot across the bows of the competitive ships. In essence, Amazon is following the acquisition strategy of Safeway, Ahold and others who gobbled up many terrific independent food retailers. However, the key will be not to Safewayize Whole Foods, nor follow the Ahold approach of rolling these banners into existing Ahold formats. Instead, I expect Amazon to apply its noted resources, namely, sourcing, customer intimacy, logistical excellence, price transparency, etc. to a brand (Whole Foods) which has a terrific image, save for price.

Roy White

I believe Amazon is just announcing — knowing full well it will get media coverage — that it now owns Whole Foods and the chain, and probably all of grocery retailing, may be in for some changes. The culture of Amazon encourages experimentation and management can and does experiment. Amazon can do this because, unlike many corporations (Whole Foods formerly included), it does not appear to be fettered by a quarter-to-quarter regime requiring steady and substantial increases in earnings and stock price. This is probably helped by Bezos’ ownership of a quarter of the float. Despite Amazon’s spotty long-term earnings record, its stock price is around $900 plus, P/E ratio 235 to 240. Now with the acquisition, Whole Foods is no longer fettered by the necessity of trying to generate big profit gains. Amazon can and will use this chain as a living laboratory to see how brick-and-mortar and digital selling can be integrated in the grocery industry. The price reductions are showmanship. The real changes will be occurring going forward, and they may well be revolutionary.

Mark Price

Amazon is likely to see the biggest benefits of the Whole Foods acquisition to be rapid entry into the grocery market, particularly fresh produce, and the immediate acquisition of hundreds of points of distribution for the Amazon organization as a whole. As a result, Amazon will not be as dependent on the high margins of Whole Foods; rather, they would like to increase the traffic into the stores, which further benefits their ultimate goal — a physical presence across online and off-line.

I anticipate a gradual reduction of prices on commonly compared products across the Whole Foods product assortment.

Steve Montgomery

As several have noted the price drops simply brought Whole Foods prices in line with the market. In short this is, as Shakespeare wrote, much ado about nothing.

You’ve got to give Amazon’s PR department great kudos for all the uproar. To use a part of a phrase from another Shakespeare play (Macbeth) — it’s “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” I do agree that over time Amazon’s impact through its acquisition of Whole Foods may have an impact on food retailing, but not in the short run.

Mel Kleiman

Amazon has lots to gain with low downside risk. I see them milking this acquisition for all it is worth in the press. Something they are an expert in. They will turn the store into another major perk for Prime members, and get to test things in 450 brick-and-mortar stores with a high-end customer base. It’s a great place to test new technology in the retail space like the automated c-store they demonstrated last December.

Ben Ball

If retailer stock prices are any indication, it already has! What those stock analysts are baking into their decisions is the fundamental impact Amazon has on any retail category when it enters. The “Prime Nation” is immediately much more likely to shop the category online than before. Whether this will translate to the Prime Nation being more willing to shop in Whole Foods retail locations could be questioned, but I’m betting on a yes. The reason is simple. Whole Foods already has a great reputation for quality and shopping experience. About the only reason shoppers don’t go there is price. When Whole Foods is integrated into the Prime shopping solution as the brick-and-mortar destination/pickup location/showroom for the Prime Nation this is going to be very compelling. And Amazon will do everything it can to make that happen — this price cut is just the PR shot across the bow.

Zel Bianco

I agree with many of the comments posted so far. The price drop on so few items is not significant and starts to bring them closer to what the prices should be. It is, however, a very welcome development in markets like NYC where Whole Foods is one of the few decent grocery stores in town. In markets like North Carolina, which Anne Howe mentioned, where customers can choose between Harris Teeter, Publix and others, it’s just not a big deal. What is a big deal is the reality of other grocers who do need to show a profit to their shareholders in the short term to to keep up with Bezos.

Cynthia Holcomb

I do not see how cutting prices to match the already lower prices other grocers charge for avocados, in the same metro areas, will bring more grocery shoppers to Amazon/Whole Foods. Loss leaders? How many shopping carts full of groceries do you see in a Whole Foods versus hand carry baskets carrying several items? Whole Foods has been too expensive for many to buy the full range of grocery products needed in life. Drop in for an avocado and kale?

Prime memberships discount commodities which is counter-intuitive to Whole Foods’ high pricing of the commodities sitting alongside the food. Whole Foods is known for wonderful displays of FRESH food and take out selections. Maybe Amazon will turn Whole Foods into a discount food retailer with other Amazon products like Alexa in between the avocados and kale.

Larry Negrich

No. This is a lot of hype driving lots of free press (which is what Amazon is best at in retail) about insignificant price reductions. Amazon needs a way to find the margin in grocery that enables it to someday profitably deliver groceries to homes. Many have tried to make that model work and I’m not convinced Amazon will be any more successful than others, outside of densely populated, urban areas.

Joel Rubinson

I do not think this is as much about Whole Foods’ pricing of organics as it is brand alignment with Amazon. They are positioning Whole Foods to be a mainstream physical presence for Amazon in the grocery arena.

Mohamed Amer
Amazon is not about luxury and exclusivity. It’s all about reaching as many consumers as possible while resetting what constitutes value in the mind of those consumers — one consumer at a time. The price drops are a signal that the old Whole Foods premium pricing is history and that it’s not necessary for future growth or profitability. So just as mainstream national supermarkets have eaten into Whole Foods’ market share, the tables are now turned against them by Jeff Bezos. That will translate into having to run even tighter operations, better management of perishables, improving supply and cold chain to ensure quality and full product shelf-life, as well as getting more out of loyalty and customer data (going beyond being a discount mechanism). At the end of the day, Amazon’s secret weapon is the massive amount of data that it has collected through Amazon Prime and the ability to predict and time your purchase needs. Amazon has become enmeshed in what we do every day, just as Google or Facebook have done on the social side. By extending to a significant physical presence in the Whole Foods acquisition, Amazon adds more ways to not only be top of mind,… Read more »
Brian Kelly
25 days 18 hours ago

Amazon is an awesome brand manager. “Whole Paycheck” was a BIG problem. Amazon went after it first thing, at least via IR/PR. It seems like high purchase frequency items aka traffic items got the haircut. Bananas for 79 cents was dumb even in Chicago, you are right, Paula.

I doubt if Bezos wants to race to the bottom. He certainly isn’t doing that on Amazon, so Whole Foods won’t either. That’s price. For the balance of the selling model, product assortment/distribution and place/space rationalization will probably be run through AWS. That’s what newer versions of the bookstores seem to show.

This is exciting and we all get to watch when we visit our Whole Foods. Or at least those of us in Seattle or Manhattan.

Rebecca Brooks
In my opinion, this is a fantastic merger. Both are experts in their respective fields. Both have massive customer loyalty. Both are innovating and pushing the boundaries of their shopper experiences. If Amazon had bought a struggling grocery retailer, it would look like a land grab for cheap store space. Going after Whole Foods, a premium brand in no sign of trouble indicates they are looking for a strategic partner. And sure enough, as this deal closes, we are seeing that it will mean very real change for shoppers. Our research shows that shopper sophistication is at an all-time high and so is the pervasive expectation of “choice.” In all areas of life, technology is driving a heightened level of control — we can do everything ourselves and find out answers to all our questions. In addition, the expectation of personalization is at an all-time high — something Amazon already offers in spades. The recent TimeTrade State of Retail 2017 Survey Report found that a high number of consumers would be willing to actually pay more for a personalized experience. Of the all-powerful Millennial respondents “nearly 70 percent said they would pay more for products or services if they had… Read more »
Kiri Masters

It’s just “Day One” for Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. There is a theme of Amazon disrupting verticals which incumbents strongly proclaim as un-disruptable. Grocery is one such category, I believe. The naysayers don’t believe Amazon will be able to squeeze more margin and cross-sell opportunity out of the razor-thin margins in grocery.

I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet in terms of knowing how far Amazon can leverage their newfound physical store footprint. The swaths of user data it can marry between online and in-store purchases could inform vendor merchandising decisions, as well as the assortment for Amazon’s own PL grocery brands (Happy Belly, Wickedly Prime, and now Whole Foods 365).

Craig Sundstrom

To the casual observer, Whole Foods’s (really Amazon’s) price moves might seem curious. The store was never about price. Some might even argue it was about “DESPITE the price.” So why give up margin? It could be publicity (Amazon … really?), a routine adjustment being hyped (again, Amazon … really?), or the reality that the natural/organic segment is more competitive than it used to be. Time will tell.

The bigger issues of interest, I think, are the extent to which in the long run, Whole Foods will be treated as a stand-alone profit center, integrated into Amazon’s other operations (in a positive way), or just a become a loss leader for them.

Lee Peterson

Isn’t it funny how when you’re bought by a giant company it suddenly becomes ok to do something “The Street” would never have allowed you to do on your own? Nice.

Anyway, this is a good start, but the real goal, converting Kroger and Walmart customers, is a long way off. We’re thinking AMZN didn’t buy Whole Foods impulsively, so I would expect the other shoe to drop before the end of the year. This isn’t enough for the grand prize (Walmart’s $254b grocery biz), but something like free home delivery as a combo could be.

Jeff Miller

Amazon is certainly winning the PR battle and in this case doing it by dropping prices on just a few products. Over time, the real economics of grocery business coupled with Amazon’s amazing skill at execution and public market’s decision on when they value growth over profits will probably have most impact on pricing.

The biggest challenge for other food retailers will be around the Whole Foods related Prime membership benefits. Think about how much better an Amazon Prime membership will be compared to your current Vons or Ralphs rewards program where you just save money but there are no other real benefits of membership. Is anyone proud to be a Vons reward member? Imagine getting all current benefits of Prime plus similar, one click checkout on your phone, probably better savings than other programs and then add in some kind of amazing home delivery options all for $99. This real loyalty program will put some serious pressure on them.

Cate Trotter

This looks like a softly-softly approach to discounting. Whole Foods isn’t a discount grocery retailer and I can’t see Amazon massively slashing prices to try and make it fit that model. What’s interesting is what the combination of the Amazon name and the perception of lowering prices will do — this might be enough to bring some new faces into the store. Plus, the idea that Prime members will be getting special benefits could widen Whole Foods’ audience — and there are a lot of Prime members out there! Overall though I think Whole Foods is going to continue to be seen as a premium grocery space for those with disposable income.

gordon arnold
For a company that sells price to make a push into the market like what we see in this discussion, there is little surprise. Whole Foods was and is in a desperate need for a boot in floor traffic. I am not so sure that prices for the products found in Whole Foods are sustainable. In fact Amazon will have to increase prices for the targeted elite brands or pressure them out of business. We are talking about small specialty businesses that provide the illusion of highest quality and lowest ecological detriment in the world. The facts are irrelevant to the needs of a small business with exorbitant LOGH G&A costs. It matters little what Whole Foods and their select super food vendors was or could have been. The name of this game is market share and selling price to get the amount they need. Cost savings in this investment will come soon in reduces staffing and lower wages for the new hires. The independents and franchise grocery businesses will suffer the most in the wake of this new big box invasion. As for Amazon, they continue to spend with no concern for a margin call from over bought banks… Read more »
Jett McCandless

Whole Foods remains a very niche grocery store, so I don’t really thing this challenges other food retailers as much as it expands potential. These price drops might very well be temporary to get people excited at this early stage, and get people in the doors. I expect plenty of sales and deals, much like Amazon’s flash deals, but if they want to continue to pursue the high-end image of Whole Foods, reducing prices across the board could create the wrong perception.

Bob Hilarides
25 days 14 hours ago

I have a hard time seeing Amazon win a price game with Whole Foods. Even if they subsidized down to parity vs. traditional grocery, Amazon’s strategic advantages won’t be highly leverageable to a Whole Foods price war: logistics of the last mile are much trickier with 4-5 temperature states, and scale can’t quickly expand supply of organic products. Current shoppers will gladly take the savings, and few other shoppers will convert to Whole Foods for parity pricing on even superior products (especially if it’s a selective price advantage).

Amazon will wring other value from Whole Foods’s brand equity, footprint/retail presence, private label assortment, etc. but winning on price will not be key. They did get our attention, though.

Javier Cazares

I think the real game changer will be when Amazon probes that it can effectively and safely deliver groceries along with any other product from their assortment in matter of hours and not only by cutting prices.

Julie Bernard
Amazon’s acquisition and headline-earning price cuts in the aisles of Whole Foods represent a powerful opportunity to address the next phase of both brands’ consumer experiences. First things first, Amazon is bringing a massive data play to the table. Yes, reducing in-store prices gets consumers into the Whole Foods frame of mind — whether for the first time or as a come-back gesture or a high-five moment for loyalists — but the bigger picture is that of data-driven shopper engagement. Amazon commands vast amounts of online consumer data via its services and it can now leverage that resource to bring newly meaningful interactions to in-store Whole Foods shopping. That’s because consumers’ mobile devices are part of a conduit to contextual and personalized in-person engagements, moments that can help guide them through future grocery-shopping trips. Working hand in hand, Amazon and Whole Foods are on the cusp of a new horizon — prompting and inspiring and suggesting selections consumers otherwise might have missed, doing this via the mobile screens we know are with them almost all the time. And the virtuous cycle of in-store/online data exchange extends back to the Amazon experience as well. We need only to turn to recent Bloomberg reporting,… Read more »
"I can only hope that Amazon will not focus solely on price."
"Yes, it’s amazing how this story has garnered high-profile coverage while the facts spin out of control."
"There is a theme of Amazon disrupting verticals which incumbents strongly proclaim as un-disruptable. Grocery is one such category, I believe."

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