Whole Foods CEO’s poor excuse for poor performance – Jose Alvarez and Zeynep Ton

Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Jose Alvarez

At a town hall meeting announcing Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, a Whole Foods employee had this question for CEO John Mackey:

“I have a question about Whole Foods’s commitment to those win-win-win-win partnerships with our suppliers, with our team members— and how that’s going to live on once this merger is complete.”

Mackey’s response was curious, to say the least:

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

“I think, sometimes, our company’s gone a little bit too much team-member focus at the expense of our customers. And that’s one definite evolution that’s gonna happen. I love the passion these guys [Amazon] have around the customer. They put the customer first in everything they do and think backwards. And— we— we’re gonna be the same way.”

If Mackey thinks that investing in people is part of the reason for Whole Foods’s poor performance, he’s wrong. From what we see, the real problem is a lack of operational excellence. Whole Foods may be paying its employees more than competitors do, but it has not created an operating system that leverages that investment. You can’t put premium gas in a clogged-up engine and expect to win a race.

Whole Foods strikes us as an organization that doesn’t standardize where it needs to and doesn’t empower where it needs to. Five stores within a city may have five different people purchasing from the same local farm in five different ways. Their information systems are mediocre at best.  John Mackey’s own words about Whole Foods technology are useful here: “So I think that we can expect that we’ll go to the front of the class, eventually, in the grocery business, from … the class dunce to… the class valedictorian.”

Poor systems and lack of appropriate standardization mean lower labor productivity and higher costs. At the same time, frontline team members appear to have little empowerment to satisfy customers. One of us recently wanted to return a $3 Whole Foods reusable shopping bag that had broken the first time it was used.  You would expect the cashier to just exchange the bag for a new one.  Instead, she called for her manager to resolve the problem.  It was a waste of time for all, including the other customers waiting in line. Paying team members more than competitors do won’t pay off if you don’t empower them to make a $3 decision! Lack of empowerment reduces not only motivation but also customer service.

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A Fashion Don’t: Why Partnerships Between Luxury Brands and Mass Retailers Often Fizzle–Renée Richardson Gosline

MIT Sloan Prof. Renée Richardson Gosline

From Huffington Post

My latest research* has to do with how people express themselves through the brands they consume. It’s a topic that has interested me for some time.

I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of immigrants in a happy but definitely modest household. I didn’t go to a fancy high school — although, living in New York, I was very aware of fashion and labels. In fact, while riding the subway to school, I was regularly exposed to conspicuous consumption — from Wall Street bankers in their custom suits, to fashionistas who sported the latest styles. I got the distinct impression that “when you got it, you flaunt it.” So when I arrived for my freshman year at Harvard — the ultimate ivory tower and in a way itself a luxury brand — I had some pretty clear expectations of how people would signal their status. I had in mind something like Dan Ackroyd’s country club-going character Winthrop in the movie Trading Places. But what I saw got me thinking about what status signals really mean. Read More »

Facebook "Frenemies Like These": trustworthiness of advice on Social Media

MIT Sloan Assistant Prof. Renée Gosline

Log on to Facebook or Twitter any time of day, and you’ll find a familiar scene: people asking questions. “In a book rut – can anyone recommend a good novel?” “Boyfriend and I had a fight – should I dump him?” or “Am shopping for a new suit — which color would look best on me?”

Social media has made it easier than ever before to ask questions of our friends, acquaintances, and other contacts. In some ways this is a good thing because we have more information to weigh, analyze, and consider before we make a decision. But in other ways, all this information and all these opinions can result in cognitive overload. It’s like going into the cereal aisle at the grocery store for every single decision.

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