Mind Over Matter

For the Sake of Shelf-Life

Whole Foods Market’s declining sales offer a worthy lesson for learning leaders: Don’t lose sight of business and industry developments. Novelty won’t be a draw forever.

A disruptor has been disrupted.

Well, we’ll say it was a steady disruption until it wasn’t. The 1980 opening of the natural foods supermarket Whole Foods Market, would, with time, help propel the organic foods movement in the U.S.

It would also, in direct and indirect ways, nudge mainstream grocers to expand their food selection to include natural and organic items. Wonderful for folks, including yours truly, not too thrilled to spend a “whole paycheck” at Whole Foods, but not so good for the brand itself.

According to a Feb. 9 story in The Washington Post, the Austin, Texas-based company reported its sixth consecutive quarter of declining same-store sales. The company’s future has been dimmed by the likes of Wal-Mart, Costco and other mass-market retail competitors, and where Whole Foods once projected scaling up to more than 1,200 stores, it will instead close nine of its 469 stores — the most ever closed at one time, the Post reported.

Why? The CEO and co-founder of the brand, John Mackey, didn’t anticipate what was then a niche area ever blossoming into a mainstream interest, the Post reported. Yet in 2015, more than half of organic food sales were made at mainstream retailers, according to the Organic Trade Association.

In addition to pulling back on its expansion plans and closing some of its stores, Whole Foods has been cutting prices and focusing on its 365 by Whole Foods Market division to appeal to the modern shopper in search of high-quality food and “tasty prices.”

But, as the story reported, the strategy of slashing prices can only go so far before the brand begins compromising on the very values it was founded upon. Bringing down prices will help the business in the short term, but what’s the long-term plan, the article seemed to ask.

Mass-market grocery chains were wise to hop on the natural foods train as it began to pick up speed. But where does that leave the niche contender, with most of its stock devoted to organic foods and products?

There’s a grocery list of companies in a similar predicament of disruption; that Whole Foods — an upstart in its time — is on the receiving end of its own disruption is notable. The story serves as a reminder to leaders of both startups and legacy organizations that it’s imperative to keep a constant eye on external market trends. No matter how novel your product or business model is today, it may not be tomorrow.

Similarly, LinkedIn Learning’s recent corporate learning report tells learning executives to stick close to the business, know its strategy and know what phase of growth it is in to most effectively deliver learning in the present as well as anticipate what will be needed for the future. A future that will invariably include new competitors — and some old ones with new ideas.

It’s a lesson worth repeating: Everything has an expiration date. Having a clear pulse on what’s happening in-store and outside of it will help ensure no one gets caught with a bare cupboard.

Bravetta Hassell is Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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