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Whole Foods And The Lobster Tale

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 7, 2006

The decision by Whole Foods to stop selling live lobsters but continue selling lobster meat in other forms has been greeted with some skepticism. David Merrefield at Supermarket News put it this way:

The lesson to be learned from this is that in retailing, when it’s necessary to make a change, tout that change as a high-value development, and do so in a style that will resonate with the core shopper base.

Live lobsters are an increasingly slow-moving category, so many supermarkets have removed lobster tanks without a thought about using the occasion to generate publicity. According to a news article in the Chicago Tribune, Jewel abandoned live lobsters eight years ago. Several weeks ago, Safeway quit selling live lobsters too, probably becoming the largest chain to eschew the product. Safeway didn’t gain much of a halo effect because the decision was styled in straightforward business terms: They didn’t sell well, so out they went.

Others thought the whole thing hilarious.

But my favorite assessment was from the House Democrats of Maine. Funny simply because one knows they would go to the ramparts to defend any creature obstructing development in Timbuktu. But they do have a point:

And, not to state the obvious, but the lobsters Whole Foods was selling are ALIVE. If you could ask the lobsters in the store’s tank who has the better quality of life, them or the butchered meat and salmon filets in the Whole Foods display case, we’ll bet a lobster dinner that we know the answer.

And maybe more telling:

How is this compatible with the company’s stated interest in selling the most natural food available and bringing consumers closer to food producers? Can you find anything more “natural” in a natural food store than a live Maine lobster?

What this episode actually tells us is that a big chunk of the organic/natural/whole food movement is about politics, not food. With a bunch of new organic/natural/whole food concepts around the bend, the issue is whether there is a substantial market for these products that don’t share the political affinity of the Whole Foods customer base. Publix sells live lobsters in some stores and, so far, there is no word on whether the new Publix GreenWise concept will do so. The Pundit lives in Boca Raton where one of the first GreenWise stores is due to open so he’ll be watching carefully to see if Publix goes after the crunchy granola folks. My guess: there is a big market for organic that couldn’t care less about politics. Boca Raton with a big affluent population is a decent test.

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