Last Friday, Whole Foods slashed its regional marketing staff, laying off graphic designers, product marketers, and store graphics artists. It’s unclear exactly how many jobs were eliminated.
Business Insider broke the news after obtaining a recording of a seven-minute conference call on Thursday, on which Nicole Wescoe, president of Whole Foods’ northeast region, announced the sweeping cuts.
Among others, Whole Foods sign-makers — employees who design and create copy for in-store signage — got the axe. This move was an effort to centralize the creation and production of the brand’s signage, but it also speaks to a much bigger shift within Whole Foods. These layoffs are a response to parent company Amazon’s demands that the grocery retailer cut costs and centralize their marketing efforts.
Since being acquired by Amazon last year, Whole Foods has been slowly but steadily moving away from its trademark approach to providing food that is wholesome, organic, and often locally-sourced. And the shift has ruffled some feathers: more than a dozen executives and senior managers have left Whole Foods since the brand was acquired last summer, according to the Wall Street Journal.
It’s easy to see this move as a manifestation of Whole Foods losing its soul to Amazon. Consider, for example, recent news about the brand’s changes to its supply chain and inventory processes to cut costs, which caused stock outages and destroyed employee morale. The company is even reportedly considering adding Coca-Cola to its shelves at Amazon’s urging, despite Whole Foods’ ban on all foods with artificial colors and sweeteners.
But what did we expect? Amazon built its brand on the promise of cutting costs and offering the lowest possible price to consumers by skipping brick and mortar stores and popularizing speedy online delivery. Did we think Whole Foods would be immune to Amazon’s laser focus on the bottom line? Just because the former built its brand on principles like never selling products with artificial sweeteners doesn’t mean it gets to maintain those principles now that it’s part of Amazon.
By cutting prices of everyday items, like eggs and milk, up to 50 percent, launching two-hour grocery delivery, and transforming urban stores into delivery hubs, Amazon is wasting no time in molding Whole Foods to further its mission to dominate the grocery market. Clearly Amazon isn’t trying to maintain the original Whole Foods’ principles while it does so — particularly in light of these recent layoffs.
If this centralization continues, the grocery brand could simply become the brick and mortar fronts for Prime and Amazon Go services. Which will severely weaken — if not destroy — Whole Foods’ identity as a high-class grocery store that offers transparent sourcing and products from local producers.
Whole Foods seems to have predicted this already and is repositioning itself accordingly. Its recent ad campaign shies away from showcasing high-end ingredients and instead focuses on the wide array of consumers who shop at Whole Foods, from dorky dads to millennial flexitarians.
That doesn’t mean we won’t see any pushback. Whole Foods attracts a high-income crowd that is willing to pay a premium for organic, local products. These consumers are the very type that would eschew mass marketization by a place like Amazon — at least publicly.
It will be interesting to see if, as Whole Foods becomes more Amazon-ified, its core consumers begin shopping at more localized specialty grocery stores. Of course, a cheaper, more accessible Whole Foods will also poach budget-focused customers away from stores like Walmart and Trader Joe’s. That is, as long as they don’t mind having the same, mass-produced “fresh tomatoes” sign at every Whole Foods around the country.