SILVER LAKE, Calif.—From an industry observer standpoint, I was thrilled to hear that Whole Foods was dropping a 365 store in my neighborhood.

Now that I’ve seen it—the value-oriented, stripped-down version from the Austin, Texas-based chain—I’m thrilled as a consumer.

I shop Whole Foods once in a while, but it’s hard for me to justify doing it on a regular basis when I’m deep in H-E-B country. San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Co. is cheap, easy and everywhere. I don’t see a noticeable enough difference to make a special trip to Whole Foods. And if it’s not at H-E-B, Sprouts Farmers Market has that one fancy bubble bath I use for my kids, so they’ve got me covered in the expensive personal care items on my list, along with great prices on produce, bulk foods and meat.

But in 365, I see stripped-down, plentiful displays of high quality produce and prepared foods.  It is Whole Foods without the expensive hoopla—not just a micro Whole Foods with the clutter of expensive personal care, vitamins, pet food, etc., that only natural/organic true believers are looking for.  Do you guys remember back in 2008, just after the Wild Oats purchase, Whole Foods trialed an express format? Yeah, no.

They’ve figured out people who won’t make a trip to a big Whole Foods don’t want all the swanky doo-dads associated with it.  Nah, man.  I’m just there for the tasty grub and fancy pluots.

And that’s what I found at 365. I stopped by the Los Angeles location on a Saturday in July.


Pared down

To be honest, the display style reminded me of a hybrid of H-E-B Central Market and Sprouts Farmers Market. A colleague saw glimpses of Trader Joe’s, but I only saw that in the yogurt and trail mixes.

I thought the Veg Valley’s, temperature-controlled room for vegetables was genius. It’s a separate room, kept closer to the temperature range of a cold room that I’m sure will help minimize shrink without a ton of labor.

The store was packed full of a mix of shoppers, many of whom aren’t the upscale-suburban-shoppers-driving-an-Audi/Subaru/Tesla I see at the three Whole Foods stores in Austin that are on my regular store check list.

These cats were so … stereotypical hip, urban “millennial” that I couldn’t suppress a chuckle at seeing a huge stack of Pabst Blue Ribbon 12-packs with a guy in skinny jeans and a sleeveless shirt in the background.

Tattoo-less forearms were the exception, not the rule in the checkout line –- as well as among employees.

The parking lot was full of beat up, broke college kid cars mixed with a few Priuses, because, c’mon, this was LA.

For the record, I drive a beat up 25-year-old Volvo, so I guess I can lump myself in that group.


Competitive prices

Price were cheap, for the most part, and the hot bar foods I loved were available.

I didn’t miss it the on-site eateries. That’s where I end up wasting most of my cash at Whole Foods – fancy cheese, bread, deli meats and eateries. I don’t actually shop Whole Foods for groceries.  I eat there like a restaurant.

Here are a few examples of the low prices:

  • A 32-ounce tub of fresh-cut mango was $5;
  • Fair Trade organic bananas were 29 cents each, the same price you pay at Trader Joe’s for organic bananas;
  • green bell peppers were 50 cents each;
  • sweet onions were 50 cents each;
  • a head of organic green leaf lettuce was $1.50;
  • a national brand of organic salad was $3.99 for a 5-ounce clamshell. For comparison, Wal-Mart offers its store brand 5-ounce clamshells of organic salad mix for $3.46.
  •  Whole Foods also offered clamshell salads as part of its “Punch Buddy” loyalty program, which gives a complimentary item after repeat purchase.
Where I think Whole Foods is going to win shoppers is that the “kids” love the store in LA, but as a borderline Millenial/GenX mom, I loved it, too.  The trail mix selection had low sugar, low salt and quality ingredients, which is why I’d make a special trip to Trader Joe’s.

The prepared foods were tasty and had a healthful halo, even though I know they’re probably saltier and fattier than I think.

This store had meal solutions aplenty, without the closed off shrink-wrapped vending machine feeling that Fresh & Easy gave people. Whole Foods is nudging, suggesting things for shoppers instead.


My downside, their upside

The only thing I didn’t like is something Whole Foods is addressing already.

Checkout took 20 minutes, and it’s because people are buying more than expected. Whole Foods plans to have add few traditional check lanes instead of offering only express lanes.

That’s a good problem to have. No one left the line in frustration, which is kind of un-heard of at grocery store. If people had to wait 20 minutes in line at Wal-Mart, there would be riots.

But it shouldn’t surprise me – these are the people that line up two days in advance of an iPhone release.

For now, I’m guess going to have to deal with only having H-E-B and Costco within Facebook check-in distance of my couch, and bide my time until 365 opens next year. 


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