8 February 2014 – Austin, Texas

Lars Gustafsson (Swedish poet, novelist and scholar) wrote about his experience of shopping in Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas back in 1998 in ‘The Tale of the Dog’. He relates:

 Over the years the shop has become damnably expensive [and] what is striking is how it has become a meeting place for two different types of people.

The anxious, who worry about vitamins and biodynamics and cholesterol, and the snobs. The anxious, who are easier to recognize, come because they’re afraid that our whole era is poisoning them […]The snobs, who are a little harder to detect, come because they enjoy food and cooking[…]And to a certain extent they come because the shop has developed into something of a club. They call the cashiers by their first names, and expressions of affection like kisses on the cheek and hugs between customer and cashier are not infrequent.

Of course there are ordinary people such as myself. We come because the fruit and vegetables are so good. The tomatoes have a flavor The apples are wonderful […]So it’s quite an entertaining kind of shop.

 As I am in Austin (in the freezing cold), I thought that I would test out how the Whole Foods Market experience strikes me, 16 years after Gustafsson was writing. Who is shopping in here? And what are they buying? The first thing I notice is how young, friendly and ‘on trend’ the staff are – really helpful and knowledgeable too. First names are still de rigeur. As for the customers – they are mostly young to middle-aged – a mix of students, professionals, young mothers and the early retired. Health conscious or food snobs? Much more difficult to assess – I’d say that times have moved on and Whole Foods doors are open wider now – but not that wide – it’s still looks pretty middle-class in here.

 One big change from Gustaffson’s time, is that the store now offers a whole range of fast-food eateries and salad bars promoting the produce on sale– and if you aren’t sure how to cook it, then there’s plenty of help and cooking advice on hand. With all this global snacking (and tasting) as you shop, it’s an even more ‘entertaining kind of shop’, but performance is now part of the script. Does it resemble a food market? All the right elements are here in their corporate way. But this is just that, a corporation – and the emphasis is on hugely successful ‘marketing’, rather than ‘market’.

 One final thought – the apples still look ‘wonderful’ (although a little too perfect for me) – they are even free for children (along with other fruits) when they leave the store.

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