Three CEOs discuss the future of retail


LAS VEGAS — Bringing back the “theater of retail” is a priority for Jason Buechel, the new chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, a business unit of Amazon.com, Inc., who spoke at the Groceryshop conference held Sept. 19-22 in Las Vegas. He assumed leadership of the supermarket chain from founding CEO John Mackey on Sept. 1.

Mr. Buechel plans to have Whole Foods stores return to a pre-pandemic engaging experience. Stores will rely on suppliers to assist through product innovation, as well as providing products that Whole Foods can put its “Sourced for Good” seal.

The Sourced for Good seal is a third-party certification program to support responsible sourcing. Launched in April 2021, it is intended to help shoppers easily identify products that meet the sourcing standards required by the program.

Jason Buechel, chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, a business unit of Amazon.com, Inc.

“A key reason customers come to our stores is our quality standards,” Mr. Buechel said. “They seek us out because we do the homework for them.”

He referred to the more than 500 ingredients banned by the company. He also noted the importance of supporting local communities.

“Since 2017, we’ve increased the number of local offerings by 30%,” Mr. Buechel said. “We currently have over 3,000 unique local products on our shelves, and this is not only important for our customers as they seek out unique differentiation, but we also think it’s an important role for us in the communities we serve.”

The in-store experience that is so important to Mr. Buechel is different from what John Furner, president and CEO, Walmart US, Bentonville, Ark., sees in the future. He also said Walmart is still trying to figure out the new normal.

While the two retailers have historically catered to consumers of different income levels, Mr. Furner said during these recessionary times, Walmart is attracting higher-income households. Mr. Furner plans to keep them through the store’s valued-added delivery program Walmart+, among other platforms.

“(The program) takes time and friction away,” Mr. Furner said. “We bring deliveries to your door, into your home and even into your refrigerator.”

Another strategy to attract higher-income shoppers is to invest in innovations that speak to their social priorities. One such investment began in January when the company invested in Plenty Unlimited Inc., South San Francisco, Calif., an indoor vertical farming company. The investment is part of a broader strategic partnership to use Plenty’s indoor vertical farming technology platform to deliver fresh produce to Walmart retail stores.

Furner_embed_sized.jpgJohn Furner, president and chief executive officer of Walmart US, Bentonville, Ark.

In August, Walmart invested in Sustainable Beef LLC, North Platte, Neb., a rancher-owned company. The investment will enable Walmart to source Angus beef from Sustainable Beef’s new processing facility that is expected to open by late 2024.

Drone deliveries are also part of Walmart’s strategy to get its urban-area customers items quickly. By the end of this year, the company’s DroneUp delivery network will expand to 34 sites, providing the potential to reach four million US households across six states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

Mr. Furner said the retailer initially thought customers would use the service for emergency items, but it is turning out to be more for convenience, such as a quick fix for a weeknight meal.

“The top-selling item at one of our current hubs is Hamburger Helper,” he said.

Nick Green, co-founder and CEO, Thrive Market, Los Angeles, said the growth strategy for his company’s online membership-based retail business founded in 2015 is to sell accessible, unique and healthy products. Today, its products include more than 500 private label products.

“They’re the best-selling, most re-ordered products on the site,” Mr. Green said. “Last year we did over $100 million in sales just from the Thrive Market brand.”

The Thrive Market site offers a limited number of brands, as compared to a brick-and-mortar retailer.

“We have a very high bar for letting new products onto the site, but we also work really collaboratively with new brands,” Mr. Green said. “About half of the products on Thrive Market, even under the Thrive Market brand, are launching for the first time. We can use our data to look at not only what people are buying right now, but what they want or can’t find. We’ll launch products or brands that take some risk that other retailers might not be able to take.”

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