Whole Foods’ Suppliers Are Shifting From Shelves to Screens
“We’ve come a long way from making cider in the back of the barn,” says Brian Nicholson, a third-generation owner of juice maker Red Jacket Orchards. Growing up, Nicholson helped his father fill cider bottles with a garden hose at their family farm in Geneva, New York. The family began Red Jacket Orchards in 1952 by selling cider at its farm store and eventually it made its way into major stores like Whole Foods, Wegmans, Publix, and Target in the early 2000s. While the business has made a number of upgrades over the years–switching to a LEED certified, state-of-the-art facility and working with a nutritionist from Cornell University to formulate 100 percent fruit juices–it has stayed mainly offline, until now.
Last month, the company began selling its most popular pressed juice flavors–Fuji apple, strawberry, raspberry, and grape–on Amazon. In the future, the company wants to give Amazon customers the option to receive its juices as a subscription delivery.
“It’s kind of a new frontier for us,” Nicholson says, “and it’s exciting, because Whole Foods carries a good assortment of [our products], but it doesn’t have everything.”
Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods is shaking up the food industry, particularly for companies like Red Jacket Orchards that until recently didn’t see much of a need (or have the resources) to sell online. Since buying Whole Foods last August for roughly $13.5 billion, Amazon has been encouraging the crossover of offline and online shopping, rolling out additional deals for its Prime members as well as expanding Whole Foods’ own line of products, most recently 365 sparkling water. As a result, food companies are starting to change their branding, packaging design, and formula strategies, driven partially by stronger sales since the acquisition, to better sell on Amazon. (Whole Foods and Amazon have not responded to requests for comment.)
In 2010, when Lillabee Baking co-founders and spouses Jared and Indea Lovenduski began selling their allergen-free baking mix at the local farmer’s market in Boulder, Colorado, they weren’t thinking about how to best optimize their products for online. They wanted to get their mixes–which are free of wheat, dairy, soy, and oats–into Whole Foods’ Rocky Mountain region, which they accomplished in 2011.
“I suppose it’s a bit embarrassing to share, but when we designed our baking mix product packaging in 2011 we only focused on store shelf presence,” says Jared. “We honestly never even considered how it would look on a retail website.”
Lillabee started to think about designing for online even before the Whole Foods acquisition. Early last year, Jared started thinking about how to reposition the brand for e-commerce. He added a graphic designer and illustrator–bringing the team up to four–to overhaul the packaging design, a process that took six months. In the end, Lillabee went with one redesigned package for both offline and online, in part because multiple designs are tough for a small company to manage. However, the new packages include specific attributes for online sales, such as pouches instead of paperboard boxes because the former are more durable in shipping. The new designs also feature plenty of white space, photography, and new language in a clean font that more clearly highlights the products’ benefits and taste. The goal was to be “helpful, but not too preachy.”
The Amazon acquisition then brought about an even bigger change to Lillabee’s online strategy–beyond packaging, the brand is rethinking its entire product lineup, says Jared. Organic baking mixes, according to Whole Foods, is not a growing market. So Lillabee went back to the drawing board and decided to pivot to prepared grain-free, gluten-free cookies. The cookies debut on Amazon next week.
Web-savvy food supplier Kuli Kuli, which has been selling on its own website since 2014, argues that e-commerce offers distinct storytelling advantages that a shelf does not. Founded in 2011, the Oakland, California-based superfoods startup, backed by Silicon Valley investors, sells Moringa energy shots, bars, smoothies, and powder. Kuli Kuli touts Moringa powder, which tastes like green beans but sweeter, for its iron, calcium, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Of course, not every food company will be a winner in the wake of the Whole Foods-Amazon integration. “Smaller, natural food suppliers who historically may have seen Whole Foods as an easier entry point to the market will have a harder time gaining distribution at Whole Foods as they compete with the private-label brands for shelf space and online visibility,” Christina Anderson, an e-commerce analyst at Kantar Consulting, said in an email. The most successful companies will be the ones that envision their products from an e-commerce perspective from the very beginning.