The Grocery Shopping Project: Whole Foods or Whole Paycheck?

In January I wrote about my first experience shopping at Weaver Street Market for my major grocery needs. I've been an owner for several years, but primarily limited my purchases to single meals at the cafe, doing the majority of my shopping at the neighboring Harris Teeter.

I thought I'd follow that up by shopping at the Whole Foods in Chapel Hill. Not as convenient to me in Carrboro as the Harris Teeter or Weaver Street, but after having a friend laughingly call it "Whole Paycheck," I decided to put my paycheck on the line and see how it compares.

This experiment was never intended to be rigorously scientific, but I did bring my standard grocery list of cold cuts, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, granola bars, mixed nuts, crackers, chips, bread, milk, juice, eggs, morningstar products, and room for anything else that might catch my eye. Since I go out to eat (and drink) fairly frequently, I tend to avoid purchasing some pricer individual items like beer, wine, and meat.

First of all, Whole Foods is big. They've got an endless array of bulk foods, with so many interesting choices that I had to get a little of everything: dried vegetable chips, banana chips, cashews, and trail mix. I was in bulk foods heaven. It's nice being able to get just the amount I want, enough to try without worrying about being wasteful.

They have lots of interesting varieties of apples. I got my standard Granny Smiths, all perfectly green and shiny, but also an Ambrosia and a Red Delicious. The baby salad mix was disappointing, 4 bins full of wilted and slimy leaves. So I grabbed a head of romaine, which is always frustrating because of the metal twist tie that breaks all the outer leaves. There has to be a better way.

Whole Foods has a pretty amazing selection of most types of food. For example, Weaver Street has one brand of granola bar to choose from (Barbara's Natural) which I admit were a little too "natural" for me whereas Whole Foods has like 4 alternative granola bar brands.

They also carry several varieties of Morningstar Farms products. I mentioned previously that Weaver Street doesn't, so I ended up with Gardenburger's Veggie Burgers--which were awful. After having previously been tempted by their riblets and buffalo wings, I'm pretty much swearing off of Gardenburger. On the other hand, the wonderful Quorn was on sale, also with a decent selection.

So what was the damage? Does shopping at Whole Foods require bringing my whole paycheck? Well, in short, no. Without doing any totaling as I threw things into my cart, trying to stay pretty close to my list, but also letting myself be tempted by some Indian food frozen dinners, the total came to $103. Completely in line with what I spent at Weaver Street and about what I would expect to spend at Harris Teeter.



I do 99% of of my shopping at Weaver Street Market. I never shop at Harris Teeter and rarely do any shopping at Whole Foods. I have an income of 15K a year. So don't tell me you can't afford to shop at WSM. It is more about what you eat then how much the products cost. And some people think they have to have what they like all the time. (like the desire for morning star products or any pre-cooked meal) That is how WF snags you as a customer. They satisfy you desire for choice.

Also, I have and insiders view to WSM and WF because I worked as a cashier at both. And I knew a woman who worked at HT before coming to WSM.

While WSM keeps products on their shelves that are mostly driven less towards customer satisfaction and more towards consumer health and community well being, WF and HT aim for the easiest common denominator, customer satisfaction (AKA profits).

As a cashier at WH I had a lot of benefits, good pay, and they had a profit sharing plan. At WSM, they just raised the cashier pay to be competitive with WF and they have a Benefit plan. Harris Teeter is better than WF then WSM in pay and benefits (But they treat you like poo-poo).

I stress the salaries because it is an indicator of the profit motive which I feel is an indication of selling out.

But don't listn to me. Shop where ever makes you happy.

Fruit in particular is superior to Harris Teeter (especially our ghetto Carrboro one) and for (nearly) the same prices. Also the hot bar is always great and affordable. We eat there it seems like once a week.

You'll soon have one more to do: Earth Fare. They are opening in Eastgate I think in May.

and we're all invited to dinner, right?

Hey Justin,

Yes, I meant "you" as the royal you, but doesn't that include you as well? :^) My point was that even if WSM charged 15% more where would you shop? So the whole question is a diversion from the real issues.

Regarding the Together In Education program:
"When customers purchase select Harris Teeter Brand products using their VIC card..."

Crappy food and yer loaded into a database.

It is all PR and data gathering. Go to their website and see how silly it is:

So what is the real cost when you give HT your money?

Do the math and you will find that $8000 a year to local schools sounds alot less than 5.5 million over five years in 138 neighborhoods. I wounder how much more profit they made because of the program?

And you have to ask, why do they not just give a portion of their profit to local schools? Or why aren't the shoppers giveng straight to the local school? Smoke and mirrors, not altruism. It is all feel good marketing.

Makes me ill.

jane, of course! quorn dogs and taco burgers for everyone!

Croatoan, "Satisfy[ing my] desire for choice" never felt so wrong. I assume the "you" in "don't tell me you can't afford to shop at WSM" is the royal-you.

As I have written, cost to the consumer based at least on what I buy doesn't seem to vary much from one grocery store to the next. Which means "you" (all) and I can shop where ever we feel the most comfortable.

Shopping at both WF and WSM gives me that nice squishy feeling that the store is looking out for my health and the world/humanity's health, which I like very much. However, others have pointed out that HT supports programs that provide money for local schools which is another element to weigh.

Croatoan, Harris-Teeter get's the dreaded red double-X from CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) for their VIC card policies. A NY Times story a couple years ago (sorry,since archived in their $$$ vault) pointed out that, based on the overall purchasing habits of a typical customer, stores with loyalty cards actually were more expensive to shop at than ones that didn't.

Weaver St. uses anonymous "gift cards" to support their school initiative. Wellspring doesn't have the same type of program, but I'm sure with some community encouragement that even Whole Foods would allow Wellspring to offer some similar program.

"WF and HT aim for the easiest common denominator, customer satisfaction. " This is a BAD thing?

And friends wondered why I wouldn't drive across town to shop at WSM after we moved. Not only am I saving fossil fuel, I get BETTER SERVICE. Perhaps, if WSM spent more time working on customer service, and less on their radio station/housing agenda...

WELLSPRING did have a plan that supported the local schools--one purchased gift certificates. It is WHOLE FOODS that does not--and they DO support other things. They've had "Habitat for Humanity" day, and a number of other "days" when a percentage of that day's take goes to the named cause.

the vic cards aren't so bad. i get new ones regularly and often trade with friends. no one says you can't have more than one. :)

First, Whole Foods does have a gift certificate program to support local schools. You buy a debit card at the customer service counter and simply tell them which school you want to have credited for the purchase. For what it's worth, Weaver Street Market has an almost identical program.

Second, the issue is really this: Are the earth's and humanity's needs fully addressed by free market economics? My answer is no. So, non-capitalist institutions are needed to help address many social and environmental problems. Sometimes those institutions are charities, sometimes governments, sometimes co-operatives. WSM is a great example of this last category.

I think it is misguided to see WCOM radio and the Weaver Community Housing Association as an affront. In fact, I think it is the misperception of Weaver Street as merely a grocery store that is the problem. You see, at it's core WSM is a co-op, not a grocery store. That is to say, what is fundamental to WSM is that it is a co-op. Not the variety of granola bars available.

While WSM is not perfect, it has many advantages over other area grocery stores. While many of these same virtues are found at Whole Foods, not all of them are. For example, both WF and WSM support local agriculture. However, WSM has a fundamental commitment to the creation and support of other co-operatives and non-profit institutions. This is in furtherance of their commitment to the Seven Principles of the Co-operative Movement as outlined by the International Co-operative Alliance (an organization of co-ops formed in 1895). Specifically, the Sixth Principle calls for co-operation and mutual support among co-operatives.

Interestingly, WSM's mission statement does not include the word ‘groceries':

“Weaver Street Market's mission is a vibrant, sustainable commercial center for the community of owners and potential owners, which is
· Cooperative - control and profits stay within the community
· Local - maximizes local resources to meet local needs
· Ecological - works in harmony with the environment
· Primary - provides for basic community needs
· Fair - mutually beneficial and non-exploitative
· Inclusive - accessible to the whole community
· Interactive - creates opportunity for community interaction
· Empowering - enables fulfilling work and customer experiences
· Educational - develops an informed community
· And is reliant on community support - to purchase goods and services, invest in the cooperative, and participate in governance.”

This is the source of WSM's commitment to WCOM and WCHA. While customer service is an important issue for WSM, I think it would be shallow to make it the sole issue.

Actually, Whole Foods offers paper certificates in addition to the debit cards mentioned above by Mark Chilton. We have a standing monthly order at Scroggs Elem.

They come in $20 increments and I believe that the school gets 5%. They are redeemable only at the CH store.

The downside is that they usually expire six months from issue date so if you misplace them for awhile, you might be out of luck.

Mr. Chilton,

Count me as shallow.

As someone who bought into the Weaver Street Co-Op in it's initial year, and volunteered there for a good while, I respectfully disagree. I wanted WSM to be a GROCERY co-op. A place where I could buy produce, bulk grains,spices, etc at reasonable prices. I understood, when I joined, that "profits" would be used to enhance the quality of the store, the offerings, and the staff.

Unfortunately, instead of using "surpluses" to reduce grocery prices for member-owners and the community at large, the WSM board opened a restaurant (with NO disount for member-owners). When I found out about the radio station and the apartments I was flabbergasted. Ultimately, after much thought, turned in our membership.

Formerly member # 349.

Hey Melanie,

About customer service, I did not say it was bad, I said aiming for it as the lowest common denominator was bad. In otherwords the customer is not always right


As a colorful exmple, say a majority of customers walked in and they all hated korean people and said if the store did not fire them they would not shop there any more. How do you satisfy those customers?

And about WSM using tthe profits to build orther establishment? At least it is not going into someones million dollar home in California.

Melanie, I'm curious about your customer service gripes. I've always quite enjoyed my interactions with the people at the various counters and at checkout. Seeing as though the bottom line costs don't vary much between stores, I've got no problem with WSM diversifying. I'm not sure about the financial relationship between WSM and Panzanella, but assuming the restaurant makes any money, I imagine it only strengthens the grocery store's thinner margins.

Melanie, I wrote; "it would be shallow to make [customer service] the sole issue." Based on your posts, it doesn't sound like customer service is your sole issue.

You also said "I respectfully disagree. I wanted WSM to be a GROCERY co-op." I don't think we disagree about that. You plainly wanted WSM to be a grocery and nothing more. You have made that abundantly clear. But it is also clear that WSM is much more than that. Where we disagree is about whether that is a good thing.

Personally, I like the radio station. It brings a unique voice to the airwaves. Also, Panzanella is one of a number of very nice restaurants in Carrboro. And "the apartments" (as you call WCHA) provide for a critical and otherwise unmet need in our community. I am not sure why these things are an affront.

I see WSM as an actual implementation of an important vision for a different economy and society that we could live in. A socially just, environmentally sustainable society is not something we should sit around pining away for; it is something that we have the power to begin building now. But it takes vision and resources to do that. WSM is an important resource for making this happen.

I don't think it should be just a grocery store.

And by the way, you can call me Mark.

For what it is worth, both Wever Street and Whole Foods give 5% of their school script purchases (WSM has cards and Whole Foods has the paper money) back to the school. The scipt can be used to buy anything in the store. Whole Foods has the added bonus that you can buy a $20 grocery certificate (the school gets 5%), use it to buy a cup of coffee and you get change back.
Harris Teeter only gives 1% of HT Brand purchases back. Although HT may give more money to schools given the volume of sales, Weaver Street and Whole Foods probably give a greater percent of their profits.

Melanie, I'm with you. If somebody took my money and my time, and promised me good organic produce at fair prices in return, I'd expect them to deliver just that. As a member of the co-op, I'd at least like the opportunity to vote on what co-op profits ( the fruit of MY labor) were being used for, but I guess I'm a little too democratic for the WSM crowd.

here's the scoop on the donations to schools: it rarely goes to anything proven to improve instructional quality or student achievement. buying playground equipment or even books doesn't lead to a better education. why not earmark these funds for improved teacher training or adopting strategies that actually help kids learn? because donors want something they can SEE like a library full of shiny books or some new pine bark for the playground. actually helping a kid learn to read (as opposed to buying him/her books) just isn't as sexy in this instant-gratification society. i don't even bother to participate in those donation prorams, prefering instead to donate actual skills to the local district and my neighborhood school.


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