Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods is a fascinating experiment in class identity

The produce section is the key to health and wellness.
The produce section is the key to health and wellness.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Whole Foods and Amazon have never exactly appealed to the same crowd.

Whole Foods has built its reputation on being the fanciest grocery store in all the land, featuring morel mushrooms, emu eggs, and birch water. Amazon, meanwhile, has maintained a remarkably class-free identity—perhaps because of the sheer variety of items it sells. When you see an Amazon box on your neighbor’s doorstep, its contents could include anything: a case of Kraft macaroni and cheese or an assortment of Korean sheet masks; paper towels or silk pillowcases; a pair of Tom’s shoes or a replacement part for a soap dispenser. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about the recipient’s wealth or aesthetics from the box alone.

Now, in the wake of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods for a cool $13.7 billion, observers are watching to see how the merger could shift each store’s clientele. Amazon kicked things off in August by making price cuts on grocery staples like apples, avocados, and rotisserie chicken—not to mention creating a sculpture of the Amazon logo out of ground beef. This fit neatly into the narrative that Amazon will force down prices at Whole Foods, opening the store to a deluge of new customers and perhaps even solving issues of healthy food access in the US.

But don’t be fooled by more affordable avocados. Cheaper prices may temporarily increase foot traffic at Whole Foods, but they aren’t going to send lower-income customers flocking there—nor will the prospect of new delivery options have them ordering the store’s groceries online. Food is deeply identity-driven. And lower prices won’t be enough to make Whole Foods appeal to customers who have long felt excluded from the organic promised land.

How and where we spend our money has a great deal to do with class identity, as Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the James Irvine Chair in urban and regional planning and professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, explains in her recent book The Sum of Small Things. Currid-Halkett argues that a new group, which she calls the aspirational class, has shifted the consumption patterns of the rich. According to her theory, conspicuous consumption—the purchase of highly visible signifiers of wealth and class identity such as cars, shoes, and designer handbags—is no longer in vogue. The aspirational class tends to invest in more subtle, but no less costly, goods and services, from private school tuition to boutique gyms and organic food. The designer handbag has been supplanted by the canvas NPR tote, and heavy bling exchanged for organic almond butter.

Whole Foods is the official grocery store of the aspirational class—famous for its rigorous demographic vetting of new store locations, which allow it to specifically seek out an affluent, highly educated consumer base. Its recent ploy to open lower-priced stores called 365 by Whole Foods aimed at millennial shoppers only supports Currid-Halkett’s theory. While many in the aspirational class are wealthy professionals, the primary currency in this world is shared cultural knowledge—not a bank account balance. If you can hold forth on the relative merits of local versus organic versus biodynamic produce, regularly spend more than 30 seconds choosing which peanut butter to buy, and have researched the benefits of raw milk, you are definitely a member of the aspirational class, no matter what your 401(k) looks like.

There’s an exclusivity that goes along with such knowledge. Note that 365 is not described as thrifty or for budget shoppers. It’s positioned to speak to millennials who are (or will be) members of the aspirational class, but are too young to have serious money yet.

Whole Foods branding isn’t just about the desirability of seaweed snacks. It sells a vision of the kind of people who shop there: a group that has collectively decided that organic food is healthier than non-organic; that it’s better to spend money on experiences as opposed to things; and that screen time is a problem. In all of these ways, the Whole Foods identity is about validating certain life choices and—by extension—judging others. New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks got flak for his much-mocked op-ed about the class signifiers of Italian sandwiches. But he’s correct that retail stores send signals to customers about who is and isn’t welcome with a myriad of features, from the language on a menu to the kinds of magazines stacked in a grocery-store checkout line. 

Currid-Halkett explains that one’s membership in the aspirational class involves a moral component, which in turn suggests that people who make different choices are inferior. “One problem with the aspirational class is that it’s not simply like, I’m rich, I’m buying awesome stuff, which you can be jealous of … there’s this implicit value system to the consumer choices,” said Currid-Halkett in a phone interview. “It’s, I’m buying these cage-free eggs because they’re better for the chicken and I care about animal rights. I’m buying organic food because it’s better for the environment, and I don’t buy made in China t-shirts anymore because I don’t agree with sweatshops. This means that there’s an implicit judgement against those who do not do that.”

In other words, it’s the cultural baggage associated with asparagus water and emu eggs that truly alienates budget-conscious customers from Whole Foods—not the hefty prices. People shop where they feel comfortable, and they tend to feel distinctly uncomfortable when they sense that their life choices are being judged. Even in neighborhoods that are officially deemed food deserts, just adding a grocery store doesn’t always alter shopping habits or make residents’ diets healthier. Human behavior is determined in no small part by our sense of group identity.

It’s understandable that Amazon wants to absorb Whole Foods’ desirable cohort of consumers. Many of today’s big tech companies cater almost exclusively to the aspirational class, either by seeking to address the particular inconveniences that plague urban life, like Uber and Lyft; appealing to their aesthetic preferences, like Spotify and Airbnb; or by creating a brand that implies that it has done the heavy lifting of determining the most moral consumer choice, like The Honest Company.

What’s less clear is whether Amazon can—or even wants to—use the Whole Foods acquisition to make organic, high-quality food a less exclusive domain. There are signs that Amazon may be interested in expanding food access: it’s now offering a 45% discount on an Amazon Prime membership for anyone who receives Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and will soon accept EBT cards for grocery purchases.

If Amazon decides that it really wants to make Whole Foods appeal to the types of people who don’t shop at Lululemon, it’ll take more than price discounts. Like Costco, which sells more certified organic food each year than Whole Foods, it can keep peddling gluten-free snacks and local produce. But Whole Foods will have to stop serving up those items with a side of moral superiority.