Whole Foods Market Inc. is starting to roll out a new range of healthier prepared foods, nutritional scorecards and other changes as part of its resolution to lure shoppers who want to get healthy.
The natural and organic grocer, based in Austin, Texas, has struggled with a dual identity for years, beginning as a health food grocer then becoming more of a purveyor of indulgences like gourmet cheese and chocolate. The changes, part of a program the company calls "Health Starts Here," are intended to bring the healthy part of the company's heritage to the forefront of shoppers' minds.
Among the changes Whole Foods is rolling out this year:
— Adding healthier prepared foods and baked goods in stores nationwide that meet new criteria such as sprouted grain bread with no refined flour, added oil, refined sugar or processed ingredients.
— Posting nutritional scorecards around markets to help shoppers choose foods with the most nutrients per calorie.
— Employing a specialist in healthy eating at each store to provide tips, tours and demonstrations for customers.
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— Increasing services such as wellness clubs and nutrition education.
"We've got a serious problems in the health of America, and I feel like Whole Foods has a big part in the answer," Whole Foods founder John Mackey said.
Whole Foods, like many other grocers and food makers, sees a larger cultural shift toward healthy living as people realize what role their diet plays in their health. A number of food makers, under pressure from consumers and regulators, have reformulated products to have less sugar, fat and sodium. Other grocers have launched their own nutrition shopping guides, and organic goods are widely available.
"It's a good move for Whole Foods as it is a good move overall for retailers," said William Bishop, a grocery industry analyst. "It's an area where they can win."
The company has, in some ways, been forced to change in the past few years.
Whole Foods' business suffered when the recession crimped spending, and decadence fell out of fashion. The company made a number of major changes — increasing lower-priced offerings, slowing growth and cutting its debt. The company also began to slowly shift its focus back toward health, while maintaining its foodie fan base.
The moves have paid off. The company's profitability has soared, doubling in its most recent quarter to $57.5 million, or 33 cents per share. And its stock price has nearly doubled in the past year.
Whole Foods is testing wellness clubs at five sites where customers can pay a fee for education, a dining club and discounts on foods that meet the "Health Starts Here" criteria. The company also plans let customers sign up for a week-long nutrition education program it now offers only to employees. Mackey says other changes are coming, but he would not specify what they are.
"Doing things to help your shopper make healthier choices, buy healthier products and get ideas are all things . that strengthen the relationship with customers," Bishop said.
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