Whole Foods Market – Information For Potential Vendors
All new items must be submitted to the regional office(s). Products that fall outside the above categories are handled differently in the different regions. Please request information regarding how to present these types of products, when contacting our regional offices. To be considered, all products must meet our Quality Standards.
4 Ways to Get Your Product on the Shelves at Whole Foods
by Lambeth Hochwald October 9, 2012
To some entrepreneurs, the ultimate accomplishment is snagging a spot on the shelves of Whole Foods Market. But before you book your meeting with a store rep, you need to be sure your product fits the chain’s demanding quality standards and the needs of its customers. “The Whole Foods shopper is slightly different in that he or she is driven more by health and taste than by price,” says Phil Lempert, a food analyst and trend watcher known as the Supermarket Guru. “You don’t want to force-fit your product into Whole Foods if it isn’t quite right.” So what’s an entrepreneur to do to crack this market? First, it’s important to understand that Whole Foods is decentralized.
The company is organized by regions–11 in the U.S. and one in the U.K.–and each one has autonomous purchasing teams for all product categories. At the same time, decisions are also made on the local level. So, a single supermarket in the chain of 332 worldwide can opt to stock your line. “There are many paths to getting your product into our stores,” says Jeremia McElwee, executive Whole Body (supplements and personal care products) coordinator at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas.
Here are four strategies that can help you make the cut and grow your business:
Know What Makes Whole Foods–and Your Product–Distinctive. If you think you’re ready for your Whole Foods debut, first visit the company’s website, which lists acceptable and unacceptable ingredients, quality standards and other important guidelines. “If your product doesn’t fit, go back to the drawing board,” McElwee says. If it does, make sure it meets one more requirement: distinctiveness. Whole Foods isn’t looking for me-too products, McElwee says. For example, an existing Whole Foods vendor found a source for fair-trade cacao from a small tribe in Panama. “This company is going to be making chocolate bars and supplements using this super high-end antioxidant,” McElwee says. “This was such a compelling story–it’s a functional food, it’s fair-trade, and we had nothing like it in the stores so it made sense to launch this line of products nationally.”
Pitch Your Local Whole Foods Store First.
But don’t count on that kind of national launch. When Irene Costello, cofounder of Boston-based Effie’s Homemade decided to try to expand the company’s crackers and biscuits beyond specialty food stores, she and her partner first approached the local Brighton, Mass., Whole Foods store. “We had an untried, untested product line so we had to prove ourselves,” she says. “We did demos at this store and met the marketing manager. She liked us and loved our first product, the oatcakes. She got behind the brand.” Once Effie’s established a track record in Whole Foods’ North Atlantic region and the brand won some industry awards, Costello decided to gauge interest in stocking the line at more Whole Foods stores. Today, Effie’s products are available at 93 stores in five regions.
Study Store Layouts.
Before you meet with a local Whole Foods buyer, study the store aisle-by-aisle so you know exactly where you think your product should be stocked. “Think of the store in real estate terms and sketch out whether your product is meant as a quick counter pickup or whether it’s strictly a grocery or bakery item,” says Mitchell Merrick, vice president of domestic sales at Jessie Steele, a whimsical apron and kitchen goods company based in Berkeley, Calif. “Tell your rep where you could see your product in the store. You want to lead the horse to water so to speak.” Initially, Jessie Steele items were stocked only in the Whole Body department with personal care products, but the company eventually got them in the grocery aisles of some Whole Foods stores, too. The products are now stocked in about 30 stores in the Pacific Northwest and North Atlantic regions.
Build Buzz at Farmers’ Markets.
While you’re getting your Whole Foods paperwork in order, sell your wares at your area farmers’ markets. That’s where many Whole Foods buyers browse regularly, looking for regional artisanal goods. That was the lucky discovery of Chris Buskirk, cofounder of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Gina’s Homemade, a line of soft Italian cheeses and biscotti. “When we started selling at farmers’ markets, we didn’t know there was any likelihood of the Whole Foods buyers seeing us there,” he says. “We were primarily interested in developing a brand identity and getting our product in front of people who cared about food.” After a few months working the farmers’ markets, Buskirk started calling his local Whole Foods without getting a response. After several attempts, he finally reached a buyer, who knew about the company both because of the farmers’ markets and because Whole Foods customers were coming in and asking for Gina’s Homemade. “Happily, our line got approved on the spot” after a tasting, Buskirk says. Gina’s Homemade is now available at the seven Whole Foods stores in Arizona, as well as the two in southern Nevada.
About Whole Foods Market
Whole Foods Market has opened wine and beer shops to cater to their upmarket brand. Above, the imported beer case at a Whole Foods beer shop.
Whole Foods Market purchases products for retail sale from local, regional, and international wholesale suppliers and vendors. The majority of purchasing occurs at the regional and national levels to negotiate volume discounts with major vendors and distributors. Regional and store buyers are focused on local products and any unique products necessary to ensure a neighborhood market feel in the stores. Whole Foods says that the company is committed to buying from local producers that meet its quality standards while also increasingly focusing more of their purchasing on producer- and manufacture-direct programs. Some regions have an employee known as a “forager”, whose sole duty is to source local products for each store.
Whole Foods Market only sells products that meet its self-created quality standards for being “natural”, which the store defines as: minimally processed foods that are free of hydrogenated fats as well as artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives, and many others as listed on their online “Unacceptable Food Ingredients” list. Whole Foods Market has also announced that it does not intend to sell meat or milk from cloned animals or their offspring, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled them safe to eat. The company also sells many USDA-certified organic foods and products that aim to be environmentally friendly and ecologically responsible. Stores do not carry foie gras or eggs from hens confined to battery cages due to animal cruelty concerns, as a result of successful advocacy by animal welfare groups. The Whole Foods Market website details the company’s criteria for selling food, dietary supplements, and personal care products.[5According to CNN, the extent of Whole Foods Market’s nutritional screening is it “doesn’t carry any food containing trans fats or artificial coloring”.
Whole Foods offers a vast selection of cheese and specialty items from around the world.
Until June 2011, body care products sold at Whole Foods Market could be marketed as organic even if they contained ingredients not listed by the USDA as acceptable for use in organic food. “Products made using petroleum-derived and other synthetic or chemical ingredients, prohibited in organic foods, can be found among the organic shampoos and lotions made by Avalon, Nature’s Gate, Jason Natural Cosmetics, Kiss My Face and other brands”, said Urvashi Rangan, an environmental health scientist at Consumer Reports. This is because the federal guidelines that regulate organic food labeling do not apply to cosmetics. Starting in June 2011, personal care products sold at Whole Foods Market were required to follow the same USDA National Organic Program standards for organic food. This required products labeled “Organic” to contain 95 percent or more certified organic ingredients.
Preparing to break open a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods Market in Overland Park, Kansas
Whole Foods Market has been criticized that its products may not be as progressive as they are touted to be. Author Michael Pollan has contended that the supermarket chain has done well in expanding the organic market, but has done so at the cost of local foods, regional producers, and distributors. Parts of the debate have taken place publicly through a series of letters between Pollan and Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey.
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the United States Organic Consumers Association, said that Whole Foods Market simply uses the term natural as a marketing tool. Cummins concluded that “Whole Foods Market now is a big-box retailer – and it’s much more concerned about competing with the other big boxes than issues of ethics and sustainability.”Similarly, researcher Stacy Mitchell of the New Rules Project argues that the corporation’s aggressive marketing of local food is more hype than substance.
In a Wall Street Journal article in August 2009, John Mackey acknowledged that his company had lost touch with its natural food roots and would attempt to reconnect with the idea that health was affected by the quality of food consumed. He said “We sell a bunch of junk”. He stated that the company would focus more on health education in its stores.