Feeling blue, shopping at Whole Foods

An Amazon Prime banner welcomes shoppers to the Whole Foods store in Portland's Hollywood district Linda Baker An Amazon Prime banner welcomes shoppers to the Whole Foods store in Portland's Hollywood district

“Do you have an Amazon Prime membership?”

The person asking the question was a cashier at the Hollywood District Whole Foods. I was in the store last weekend and had just unloaded a basket of bananas, legumes and Morning Rounds in the checkout line.

I’m used to the friendly chatter of supermarket cashiers: “How are you doing today?” “What are you making for dinner?”  

But this inquiry was different. It was a sales pitch, pure and simple. The question wasn’t designed to make the shopping experience more pleasant, or even build the Amazon/Whole Foods brand.  It was designed for one purpose: to reel in another Amazon Prime customer.

Over the past few months I have watched my local Whole Foods store slowly but inexorably transform into a physical version of the Amazon online marketplace. First came the Amazon lockers. Next, the ubiquitous blue Amazon Prime banners. And now: blue-rimmed cash registers and clerks hawking Amazon Prime memberships.

Like many shoppers — and city governments — I have a conflicted relationship with Amazon. The conflict is that I can’t stay away, even though I want to. I get my movies, my books, my kitchenware and so much more from the online marketplace. 

It’s so fast. So cheap.

But I’m not confident that Amazon's Whole Foods stores are going to succeed in the marketplace.

Sure, the prices are rock bottom, if you qualify for the Amazon Prime discounts. But cheap products in physical stores don’t always spell success; just ask WalMart, whose fortunes have faltered. And stories of unhappy Whole Foods employees and customers, post-acquisition, are legion.

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It’s easy to log onto Amazon's virtual marketplace, purchase any item under the sun, all the while dismissing nagging concerns about the company’s impacts — on livability, on labor (studies show many Amazon warehouse workers are on foodstamps) and on manufacturers squeezed by the e-giant's race to the bottom.

It's harder to hide one's true colors in the physical world.

The color blue is everywhere in Whole Foods, so much so the stores feel like hospital environments. It's a "cool" color, designed to make people feel calm, balanced, less emotional.

Like cogs, one might say. Cogs in the machine.

Whole Foods' original business model failed because the food cost too much. But in its latest incarnation Whole Foods may have overstepped in another direction.

Do shoppers want Amazon in their own neighborhoods?  Do they want to be reminded of Amazon’s all-consuming presence when they shop for groceries?

The answer to those questions may very well be yes. Or at least: I don’t care. 

Yet the company’s march into physical territory feels like a tipping point. Shoppers are now in a position where it’s hard to avoid asking those questions, all the more so as Amazon’s footprint in Oregon grows and tech behemoths come under greater scrutiny.

Did I purchase a Whole Foods Amazon Prime membership? No. But one thing I know for sure: It's not the last time I'll be on the receiving end of that particular inquiry.

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is the editor of Oregon Business

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