Two weeks ago, we spent a few hours in the Westport Whole Foods Market that was formerly Wild Oats. Actually, it used be a terrific independent store that was then bought by distributor United Natural Food’s NRG retail group . Wild Oats bought it from UNFI and when the Safeway right next door closed, they knocked down the wall between the two stores and made it one, large and ungainly store.
Two pairs of unrelated forty-something couples in the parking lot told us the same thing. So did several people inside the store. What they said was that they buy nearly all their groceries at natural markets and that before the acquisition, they frequently drove all the way to Greenwich to shop Whole Foods instead of Wild Oats.
While we’ve talked about the slow but steady transformation of the former Westport Wild Oats under Whole Foods’ new management, we never understood how fully Wild Oats was missing the boat, even in one of America’s richest towns. We shopped at that store when it was Wild Oats and while not great, we thought it was a good place to shop and far above most. But then again we don’t drive late model German imports, either.
Additionally, some of these shoppers told us that they were a bit disappointed in the new store. While we told them they needn’t be, that plans are in the works for a top-to-bottom remodel, we suggest that corporate does a better job getting this message out to shoppers in the store.
What’s more we also discovered plenty of people who had never been to Whole Foods, who don’t buy natural, but who had heard all the buzz. We taught a few how to write the PLU number on the twist tie on their bulk items, as we told them that the store was just beginning to shine so to keep coming back. Can you tell we’re not big fans of Stop & Shop and Shaw’s, the two major supermarkets in the area?
Wild Oats’ poor reception even among hard core natural shoppers shouldn’t have surprised us. After all the former Hayday Market, now part of the VC owned and not well managed Balducci’s brand was way ahead of the gourmet and natural curve and still didn’t make ends meet. Today the store is a shadow of its former self. Even in a town where the free nibbles at the sampling station include oysters and ribeye steak.
Concepts are one thing, of course, and execution? Something completely different.
Like our Yiddish grandma used to say, “Oy vey! Don’t you know what’s good for you?”