On Monday afternoon at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show, Whole Foods Market CEO Jason Buechel discussed the company’s current status and plans for the immediate to near future. Buechel has been associated with Whole Foods for 10 years, beginning as a consultant; he became chief operating officer in 2019 and CEO in 2022.
Nick Handrinos, vice chairman and leader of Deloitte LLP’s Retail and Consumer Products, joined him on stage. Over the course of a brief but spirited conversation, Buechel and Handrinos covered consumer commitment/resiliency, the theater of retail, supply chain, workforce issues and overall innovation.
Beginning with the company’s “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” health- and environmentally oriented mission statement, Handrinos wondered if consumers were as committed.
“One of our strengths is that our core customer really cares about quality standards and the differentiation that we bring to market,” Buechel said. “We do the homework for them, so they’ll know what’s in the food we offer, and we feel that regardless of what may be happening on the economic front, they’re going to try to find ways to stay true to that.”
Handrinos turned to the theater of retail, asking Buechel how changes like the adoption of buy online, pickup in store has impacted the business.
Whole Foods’ best customers are shopping all the available channels, Buechel said: “We’re delighting them on both fronts.” One way of delighting customers is by opening new stores. Whole Foods has 50 stores now; Beuchel wants to go to 100 and has a vision of opening as many as 30 stores a year.
“It’s too early to count out stores,” he said. “We want a place for customers and associates to celebrate food together.” One such place, he observed, is the new Whole Foods store at a famously historical New York address: One Wall Street.
While Whole Foods has always been good at transparent labeling and ethical sourcing, Handrinos asked how its supply chain has evolved in a world with so much supply chain volatility. “What issues are you having to deal with, and what are some of the tough choices you’re being forced to make?” he asked.
"When we have those win-win partnerships in place, and the suppliers understand what we’re trying to do, they’re excited to be part of the journey.”
Jason Buechel, Whole Foods Market
Acknowledging that the last few years have been as challenging for Whole Foods as for the rest of the retail industry, Buechel said, “for us, one of the biggest foundations is that it’s based on win-win supply partnerships. They helped support us during the pandemic. Some of these relationships go back 40 years. In many cases it’s for decades. When we have those win-win partnerships in place, and the suppliers understand what we’re trying to do, they’re excited to be part of the journey.”
Turning to the role of the associate, Buechel said team members have to have a stake in the game. To that end, Whole Foods is developing professional upward paths for certain specialties, such as meat handling and cake decoration. “We want to be one of the best employers in the market,” he said.