Whole Foods CEO John Mackey Says Many Won't Go Back to Food-Shopping in Person

09/11/2020 | 10:22am
John Mack

By Jaewon Kang

J helped popularize organic food when he co-founded Whole Foods Market four decades ago. Over the past several months, his chain of more than 500 stores has scrambled to adapt to another major shift in how Americans buy groceries.

Since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the U.S. in March, consumers are ordering more groceries online, making bigger purchases at a time and avoiding lingering in Whole Foods' aisles. To meet the rush for grocery deliveries, the chain temporarily closed some urban stores to walk-in shoppers and converted them to handling online orders only. The grocer is also expanding its pickup operations.

"When things return to normal, there will be a lot of people who don't go back to shopping in-person," Mr. Mackey predicts.

The pandemic has accelerated an online-grocery movement that Whole Foods was already seeking to capitalize on as part of Amazon.com Inc. Mr. Mackey sold Whole Foods to the online-retail juggernaut for $13.4 billion in 2017, one of the decisions he recounts in his new book out this month, "Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business." In the second quarter of this year, Amazon's online grocery sales, which include Whole Foods' business, tripled from a year ago.

Mr. Mackey spoke with The Wall Street Journal from his office in Austin. Here are edited excerpts:

WSJ: How has the pandemic changed shopping behaviors?

Mr. Mackey: People are purchasing differently, and that's partly because they're not eating at restaurants as much. All the animal proteins have increased tremendously, and our prepared foods are way down. More people are shopping with a list. They come in, they get what they want, they get out. They're not lingering longer like they used to, pre-Covid, and I think they will again.

WSJ: The number of new coronavirus cases nationwide remains high. How are you keeping your people safe?

Mr. Mackey: We were very early with masks, with disinfecting our shelving, our grocery carts, our equipment. We do temperature checks for all our team members every day. If your temperature is high, you have to leave the store, and if it stays high, you have to get tested. All we can do is control our environment, and I think our environment is safe. What people do when they leave, who they socialize with, if they're out protesting or going mask-less -- we can't be responsible for that. I doubt anybody is catching Covid at Whole Foods Market.

WSJ: Whole Foods paid store workers an additional $2 an hour in the first months of the pandemic but stopped in June. Why not continue to pay them more for working under these conditions?

Mr. Mackey: Whole Foods already pays the highest in the supermarket business, starting out. We start out people at $15. We paid a bonus in June, as well. We extended additional pay for family leave, we paid sick pay, additional sick pay, we paid quarantine pay. We've been taking care of our team members really well. Does that mean people wish they made more money? Well, sure. But Whole Foods has done as much or more than any of our competitors.

WSJ: If the U.S. had a national mask mandate, would this make it easier for retailers and their employees to enforce?

Mr. Mackey: I do not favor a national mask mandate. Think about it: Some places [in the U.S.] never even locked down their economies. You're going to force the whole country to abide by a mask mandate? That's a bad idea. That should be done on a local basis, or not at all.

WSJ: It's been three years since Amazon acquired Whole Foods. How has it been working out?

Mr. Mackey: The best way to put it would be: If we had to make the decision all over again, would we make this decision? The answer is yes, because Amazon's been a great partner. They've helped us evolve; they've helped us get better at technology, delivery. We're taking on the parts at Amazon that can help Whole Foods be a better company, but they haven't tried to consciously change our culture.

WSJ: What merger challenges have you've learned from?

Mr. Mackey: Amazon has a culture that asks a lot of questions. We took a little longer to get used to that, but that's no big deal. That's how you learn things. They're trying to understand our business. They want to know everything. And I think that's healthy.

WSJ: What's the biggest leadership lesson you've adopted from Jeff Bezos?

Mr. Mackey: Amazon wants you to write up a document explaining your ideas, defending them, and then you can have discussions. That's a practice Whole Foods has adopted. Amazon's also very data-driven. As opposed to acting from the gut, Amazon says, "Show us the data." That's been a good discipline for us. We do it ourselves, even when we're not talking to Amazon.

WSJ: What's the best approach to helping out-of-work people through the pandemic?

Mr. Mackey: I don't have any overall suggestions for what, politically, the U.S. should do about unemployment. If we open the economy back up again, unemployment's going to shrink. We've done tremendous damage to our economy, shutting it down like we did. You have to trust people to make good decisions. They're the best people to decide about their families, their bodies and their lives, and I have more confidence in individuals than I do in government to make decisions.

Write to Jaewon Kang at jaewon.kang@wsj.com


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