The question bothered me after a recent trip to Whole Foods Market, an upscale market near my home. The container of hummus I bought hadn’t been refrigerated; it was displayed in a large barrel of ice.
In fact, lots of other food and drinks items were stored in ice barrels all around the store. The items needed to be kept cold but it certainly would have used less space if they had been placed on normal cooled shelves. What was Whole Foods thinking?
I found a plausible – and fascinating – answer in a Fast Company article entitled “How Whole Foods Primes You To Shop”. The author suggests that ice is a symbol of freshness; it provides the unconscious suggestion what you’re looking at is ready-made or straight from the farm. It doesn’t matter whether the ice is strictly needed as long as it reinforces Whole Foods’ brand promise.
Using ice to denote freshness is only a more sophisticated version of a subliminal tactic supermarkets have been using for years:
…supermarkets have been sprinkling vegetables with regular drops of water – a trend that began in Denmark. Why? Like ice displays, those sprinkled drops serve as a symbol, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. Ironically, that same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise. So much for perception versus reality.
Lindstrom claims that Whole Foods is a master at the art of consumer seduction. Most grocery stores have non-perishable items at their entrances: cash registers, snacks, and movie rentals. In contrast, Whole Foods places fresh flowers at the front entrances to prime us into thinking of freshness from the moment we enter the store. We carry that subliminal message around with us for the rest of our visit.
This brand promise is reinforced everywhere in the store, from the fruit spilling out of cardboard boxes to the hand-drawn prices in chalk on slate. The boxes and slate evoke the image of a traditional outdoor European market.
It’s as if the farmer pulled up in front of Whole Foods just this morning, unloaded his produce, then hopped back in his flatbed truck to drive back upstate to his country farm.
The chalk scrawl also suggests the prices are set locally and change daily depending on supply. In fact, the prices are fixed at the Texas corporate headquarters and the signs are mass-produced in a factory. Even the multiple randomly-stacked boxes are actually a single-sided display case designed to look like individual boxes.
News flash: Whole Foods isn’t a country store. We’ve been Brandwashed.