Whole Foods Market co-CEO Walter Robb said Monday that the food industry is going through a “tectonic shift,” as the millennial generation drives a push toward greater transparency and sustainability when it comes to what they eat.
“This thing is continuing to move, and you better get on board with it or you’re going to get left behind,” Robb said at Fortune Brainstorm E, an energy and environment conference in Austin.
Robb added that the warning applied to Whole Foods, too. Robb and Whole Foods Chief Information Officer Jason Buechel, also a member of the company’s executive team, spoke in their hometown market amid news earlier in the day that the company is cutting 1,500 jobs.
Robb said the cuts would free up money to invest in lower prices, marketing, and technology. But he added that the company is still growing by adding about 40 stores annually with plans to debut the first of its new lower-priced 365 chain in April. He also pointed to the food industry’s double-digit increase in sales of organic products. “All the growth is on this side of the ledger,” he said. “There’s plenty of business to get.”
One of the major ways Whole Foods plans to compete is through investments in technology, which Robb said must be fully integrated into retail. “There’s no separation anymore,” he said. A key example here is the company’s relationship with grocery-delivery service Instacart, which Robb said has been experiencing tremendous month-over-month growth. “It’s not a replacement for going to the store,” Robb said. “It’s a partner to going to the store.”
Buechel outlined how the company is investing in three major technology platforms. The first will be for team members (Whole Foods speak for employees) to help with tasks like better labor scheduling. The second, for customers, includes the company’s new loyalty program as well as more transparency for consumers into what’s on the shelves; the third is related to products, which Buechel said would “change our entire look at the supply chain.”
Whole Foods operates under a model in which the company tries to create value for all stakeholders, rather than put the shareholder first. The environment is considered a stakeholder by Whole Foods, which Robb said is one of the many reasons the company supports organic agriculture.
Making the environment a top priority is also why the company introduced its responsibly grown program earlier this year, Robb said. The rating system takes into accounting holistic and “progressive practices” on the farm like recycling and water. It also lets the customer have greater transparency into where product is coming from.
Concern for the environment is not just reserved for agricultural practices. The company has cut energy use by 40% in its stores in the last five years by taking steps like adding doors to its freezers.