With millions of Americans still sheltering in place and cooking their own meals, the grocery industry has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise battered U.S. economy. Unless, that is, you are Whole Foods Market, the upscale chain acquired three years ago by Amazon.com.
Trips to Whole Foods in September were down 25% from a year earlier, according to Placer.ai, which tallies retail foot traffic from some 30 million mobile devices. Some of the decline is due to consumers consolidating shopping trips and buying more groceries online, but the traffic decline at Whole Foods is much steeper than at Walmart, Kroger and Trader Joe’s. Visits to Albertsons-owned stores, including Safeway, meanwhile, actually increased last month, compared with a year ago. And though Earnest Research estimates that Whole Foods sales (including online) rose by as much as 10% during the pandemic, some rivals are posting twice the gains.
“Everyone is buying more everywhere, but total customers are actually down for Whole Foods,” said Michael Maloof, who tracks consumer habits for Earnest Research. “Whole Foods is in a uniquely horrible place.”
Amazon doesn’t break out Whole Foods sales, so getting a complete picture of the chain’s travails is difficult. But few grocers were more awkwardly positioned for the pandemic, analysts say. The stores were rarely a one-stop destination before the outbreak even for fans. The company expanded its prepared meals sections for office workers seeking lunch or dinner on the go, but now those customers are homebound. And Whole Foods shoppers who have time to visit stores often confront long lines and aisles crowded with gig workers paid to fetch online orders.
Meanwhile, despite expectations that the world’s largest e-commerce company would use Whole Foods to re-invent food shopping, Amazon has opted to open a separate chain called Amazon