Wal-Mart vs. Whole Foods

In a recent comment, Elise referred to Whole Foods as Whole Paychecks, and I have to admit that the name fits the store well. You know it’s going to be expensive from the first moment you enter and I’ve found that the best way to avoid spending a whole paycheck is to only get a small basket to carry your purchases in as opposed to a large cart.

The displays of meat, produce and cheese are artful. Packaged goods are labeled with adjectives that always work on a sucker like me–artisnal, fire-roasted, hand-crafted, free-range, grass-fed. You can almost convince yourself that the store deserves to charge you more because everything just looks so dadgummed attractive. There’s soft music, non-flourescent lighting and at least a fifty-fifty chance of seeing a celebrity.

And then there’s Wal-Mart.

Eco-packaging of generic brands. The pervasive aroma of…what exactly is it?…a cross between popcorn and industrial cleaning solution I think. And the food–shrink-wrapped, tired produce, Kraft singles and Sam’s Cola.

But have you looked lately?

The lighting is still bad, but those bins are great. According to an article in the latest Atlantic, Wal-Mart is on a mission to support local farmers and suppliers. The company has developed a program call Heritage Agriculture that is designed to get locally grown produce into its stores. It also wants to encourage farmers to branch out and plant a greater variery of produce.

I can hear y’all sneering and scoffing right now.

Obviously, Wal-Mart’s motives aren’t purely altruistic. But they aren’t purely pocketbook driven either. In an effort to entice buyers like me, they have revamped many of the produce sections and started arranging the food more as it would appear in a farmer’s market or fancy store. The shrink wrap has been replaced and the variety has increased.

You already know the food costs less than at Whole Foods, but what about the taste?

The author of the article arranged for a blind tasting in Austin, Texas. He took a list prepared by a local chef and bought identical ingredients at Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. The judges were local foodies, chefs and writers.

First course:  bowls of almonds, fried goat cheese, red onion jam and honey. Slam dunk for Wal-Mart

Second course: Spring greens with a sherry vinaigrette. Another win for Wal-Mart

Third course: chicken served with a poached egg on a bed of spinach. The Wal-Mart chicken was roundly dismissed (it had been injected with broth), but the Wal-Mart spinach was preferred.

Dessert:  Panna Cotta. This was Whole Foods only real win of the evening.

The article states that the judges were none too pleased to discover that they had chosen Wal-Mart over Whole Foods in several instances.

So am I going to start doing all my grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. No…but that’s a matter of covenience as much as anything else. By the same token, I don’t do a lot shopping at Whole Foods either, and that’s a matter of cost. This summer though, I will make it a point to check out the produce at Wal-Mart to see if they’re particiapting in the Heritage Agriculture program.

Food for thought, for sure.

p.s. I just realized that this is my third post in a row about grocery stores. No more.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Wal-Mart vs. Whole Foods

  1. Whole Foods is death by adjectives. But it is a beautiful store. I’m not the shopper in the cave so I had no idea WalMart was expanding in this direction. I’ll have Mrs. Wife read this post because she’ll be all over it. We at the Unbearable household are not the sneering type, that’s for sure.

    Don’t worry about your post content. Write whatever you like! Censoring yourself with a eye towards pleasing an audience is a rookie mistake. That philosophy is probably what keeps my readership so low, but I can’t guess what people like and don’t like.

  2. I like the idea of your farmer’s market better than either of the grocery store options. Trying to supply organic food on an industrial scale somehow misses the point, I feel.
    I also fail to understand why organic produce is so expensive. I used to keep an organic plot that kept two people self-sufficient (although maybe a bit bored at times – courgettes again?) year round, and although it needed weeding from time to time, it was very cheap – no herbicides, chemicals, artificial fertilizers to buy – and we were regularly inundated with produce. We’re paying exorbitant prices for weeding?

  3. christa

    Just be sure to watch how Wal-Mart pays its farmers. They have a history of lowering the costs that their vendors normally get paid in exchange for….well, I almost said loyalty. I’ve read that Wal-Mart’s haggling can be pretty brutal on their vendors’ bottom lines.

  4. it’s about volume. one segment of “Food, Inc.” points out that the most effective way to drive the food industry toward healthier practices is to get the stuff on the shelves of WalMart. There is some logic to this… if McD’s customers start demanding grass fed beef? what would happen to mega-meat farms?

  5. I like your “food” for thought here. Also, very much enjoyed your unspoken tirade on the pushy, rude, Long Islander from your last post. Long live the South and all it’s southern comforts.

  6. Whole foods is really displayed well – the lighting IS beautiful, isn’t it?? Can’t afford to shop there often, either. Prefer Kroger over Wal-mart but I too read the Atlantic article, so am pleased Wal-mart is trying harder….but when the local farmers gear up, that’s when I get really excited. My neighbor is exchanging her produce for our horse manure. Sounds like the better deal for us……

  7. Julie Fisher

    So the cheese selections are fabulous at Whole Foods. . . but you can’t get your dog groomed there and there is no greeter at the door who is really there to make sure you’re not trying to make off with an extra radish in your bags and you can’t get five plastic bags with five items that you purchase and you can’t get in your daily exercise by walking from the tomato selection through the auto tires selection to get to the dairy products. I even think that probably if you look around Walmart enough you could find a counter that could sell you a gall bladder surgery.

  8. First, if every supermarket chain were to emulate Whole Paycheck Foods as per their marketing/merchandising, there’d be a lot less struggling. WPF knows its demographic and knows how to speak to it.

    And as regards Walmart–
    I lived at almost 8000 ft. in rural NM for a couple of years–the supermarkets of Albuquerque were almost an hour away in good weather–in the winter (when there was no farmers’ market and when the one road in/out was closed due to snow/ice/wind) Walmart was our only shopping option. I freaked a little when I first realized that, because it’s actually kinda difficult to articulate just how deeply I despise Walmart.

    However! “Our” Walmart had been built from the ground up to be as eco-friendly as possible. It was close to 80% solar and had its own waste treatment system. It was even designed in the territorial style to blend with the surroundings.

    Their supermarket put any WPF on the planet to shame. The produce was local whenever possible–fresh and gorgeous with a pepper selection that was off the charts. They even sold fresh-daily, locally made tortillas. The bins were reclaimed wood, the aisles were wide, the place was clean and sunlit, the employees were friendly and cheerful. It was Bizarro World Walmart.

    Compare and contrast with the dark, filthy, cramped, miserable Walmarts I’ve experienced everywhere else I’ve lived over the past 20 years. In east El Paso, they never even bothered to remove merchandise from the pallets–they’d just shred the plastic for giant free-for-alls. One didn’t dare wear flip-flops–the floors were so sticky, you’d lose your shoes trying to walk through the place. The one in central Phoenix was so dark and creepy I would have eaten my cats rather than buy food there.

    This post gives me hope, though. Perhaps Walmart is trying to turn things around. They certainly seem to be taking steps in that direction, don’t they? Perhaps someday all Walmarts will be more like “my” Walmart in NM? Hard to imagine, but crazier things have happened.

  9. Part of the attraction to Whole Foods is the shopping experience. I know it sounds cheesy but oh, I just love to go in their and mosey around. The indie music, lighting, wide aisles, and general peaceful-oh-look-we-love-the-earth ambiance of the place. When I go to Wal-mart (it’s been a while, there are none in my area) I’m in and out. It’s stressful and congested. Good for them for changing their marketing strategy. Whether it’s for realz or for profit, if local farmers and workers benefit, hooray!

  10. I love Whole Foods. Looking forward to when the new one at McEwen Dr opens in a year or two.

  11. UB–Give it a shot. If I had to buy for kids, I’m sure I’d be there more often.
    PG–Yes, I am waiting for my farmer’s market to return in a couple of months. As for organic, I jumped on that train myself for a bit, but I find it harder to justify the extra cost. For everything that I read supporting organic, I read something else that debunks it.
    Christa–You’re absolutely right. I think we’ll get a better idea if we see some of the bigger area farms in the stores.
    DF–That’s an interesting point about volume and one I didn’t know about. Thanks for the info.
    ZM–Amen!
    AGL–Wonder if any of the local farmers would trade produce for litter box contents?
    Julie–That’s the thing…there’s just too much stuff. And even if WM does improve the produce, there’s still the meat and dairy to consider.
    Elise–I would like to see the high altitude, bizarro world WM–sounds great. I’d say ours is somewhere inbetween…it’s a “super center” and is huge.
    Dingo–If you like the experience at WF, you’ll love Fresh Market…do they have them up there? I usually just hand them my wallet when I go in and reclaim it (empty of its contents) when I exit.
    CSJ–Are they still planning to build there? I hope so. BTW, do I know you??? 🙂

  12. I wish we had a Whole Foods near us. I went in to one once, I think, and I swear there were angels singing. All the beautiful food! (And you’re SO RIGHT about the adjectives!!)

  13. Did you see the recent piece about how some of Whole Foods frozen foods–even the ones with California in the name–actually came from China? It was in fine print on the back of the package.

    (sigh)

  14. I’m lucky enough to have an independent deli offering locally grown produce just a block from my apartment.

    Very, very lucky. Sure, I spend a little more on food, but I save on bus fare. Win.

  15. No matter how much Sprawl-mart tries to improve its image, I’ll never forgive them for destroying so many small Southern downtowns and running local competitors out of business. I’m of the age that I got to see the transition from charming Southern town to strip-mall America happen right before me. Wal-Mart wasn’t the only culprit, but they were certainly the biggest.

  16. I make it a general rule to
    1. Go to Walmart as little as possible. I agree with “A Free Man” that they are a big part of the reason for the loss of small businesses throughout the south (and other regions as well).
    2. Go to Whole Foods with a small basket and get only what I need that I cannot find elsewhere.
    3. Try and follow Michael Pollan’s Food Rule #12: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
    4. Always go to the farmer’s market when it is around.

    I go back and forth on organic. I think it is probably good for small farmers and good for the earth. Jury still seems to be out on whether it is good for my body. All things being equal – including the state of my budget at any given time – I like to err on the side of organic.

  17. addicted

    Whole Foods is a brilliant marketing scam. The whole company ethos is the complete opposite of what they project. They are more concerned about their packaging than actually selling good food.

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