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How Jeff Bezos can save Whole Foods from itself


LAST FALL, I walked a mile from downtown New Orleans along an eerily quiet stretch of the Lafitte Greenway to Broad Street. Next to a tire center, a Chinese restaurant, an auto mechanic and a beauty supply store sits one of America’s bougiest grocers: Whole Foods. In this neighborhood, on a muggy weekday afternoon, I was sure the place would be deserted; the street is barely on the good side of seedy. But inside, sales were humming. Shoppers of all races and ages rolled their carts up and down aisles stocked with 330 local products. The place felt more like midtown Manhattan than Mid-City New Orleans.

When Whole Foods opens a store like Broad Street, it works, and it’s the envy of the industry. But in the past decade, everything from Whole Foods’ sales to its legacy have gone to compost. The grocer has gone from being the only natural foods store on the block to taking a beating from just about anybody who sells bananas. Shoppers can find cheaper organics at Trader Joe’s, Costco and Kroger. By June, just before the company announced its $13.7 billion sale to Amazon, Whole Foods’ stock price had dropped by half in the past four years.

The well-worn explanation: The grocer has been gouging its customers for decades, overcharging for even staple products like dish soap and toilet paper, because it could get away with it by being the best—if not the only—place to buy quality natural food. Then, competitors snuck up on the company, siphoning away its control of the market, diluting its brand and its lofty mission to spread healthy, ethically sourced products across America. Instead, the grocer took on a derisive moniker: “Whole Paycheck.”

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CANCER REBELS For this year's Special Health Issue, we've focused on the Cancer Rebels, the women, men and children who ignore the rules and scorn the conventions that surround cancer, and who refuse to succumb to the disease. These are the people who find vitality in taking on cancer from unexpected directions.