Social Class & Whole Foods

By: Xiaolong Yang

Social classes are defined as groups of more or less homogenous people, ranked against each other according to a form of social hierarchy. Even if it’s very large groups, we usually find similar values, lifestyles, interests and behaviors in individuals belonging to the same social class.

A sociologist named W. Lloyd Warner proposed the most influential classification of American class structure in 1941. Warner identified six social classes:

1 Upper upper

2 Lower upper

3 Upper middle

4 Lower middle

5 Upper lower

6 Lower lower

People from different social classes tend to have different desires and consumption patterns. Disparities result from the difference in their purchasing power, but not only this factor. According to some researchers, behavior and buying habits would also be a way for people to identify and belong to a social class. Beyond a common foundation across the whole population – and taking into account that many counterexamples naturally exist – people do not always buy the same products, choose the same kinds of vacations, watch the same TV shows, read the same magazines, have the same hobbies, or go into the same types of retailers and stores.

For example, consumers from the middle class and upper class generally consume more balanced and healthy food products than those from the lower classes. They don’t go into the same stores either. If some retailers are, of course, patronized by everyone, some are more specifically targeted to upper classes, such as The Fresh Market, Whole Foods Market, Barneys New York or Nordstrom. While others, such as discount supermarkets, attract more consumers from the lower class.

In addition, consumer buying behavior may also change according to social class. A consumer from the lower class will often be more focused on price. While a shopper from the upper class will be more attracted to elements such as quality, innovation, features, or even the “social benefit” that he can obtain from the product.

Whole Foods Market

Whole foods market offers a healthy lifestyle to its consumers; meanwhile, because of the high price of its products, it is also often called “Whole Paycheck”. Whole Foods Market targets consumers in the upper and middle classes, who live a very healthy lifestyle and are concerned with eating all natural and organic foods. They desire food that is unique and interesting and look for an all-around exciting experience when they shop for food. The target consumer is more interested in natural supermarkets than regular grocery stores. They have a strong connection with the environment, are college graduates, live in urban areas, and are fairly wealthy.

Whole Foods’ retail model has turned this blueprint on its head by reinventing the way well-heeled consumers think about upscale goods. They’ve taken the old cues for austerity, economy, and frugality and applied them in new ways to spread their message of eco-friendly capitalism to the world (or at least to some of the better zip codes in America).

The rise of Whole Foods is important because it is emblematic of a larger shift in affluent marketing. Here’s how:

  • Provenance: Premium pricing is rationalized in part by ensuring consumers’ awareness that real people are touching (or “curating”) the things they buy. Next to those beautiful $10 containers of fruit in the produce department, Whole Foods posts signs announcing that these goods are not only natural or organic, but were cut up by hand by real people named Miranda, Steve, or Bethina. To drive this personal touch home, Whole Foods features store employees’ names and sketches throughout the store on well-placed chalkboards.
  • Inclusion: Despite Whole Foods’ locations in pricey neighborhoods, its personnel are diverse. Each location I’ve visited seems to feature a dynamic employee mix of various ages, genders, ethnicities, and funkiness.
  • Egalitarian: Whole Foods’ employees seem to be united in their casual willingness to greet you (but not in a perfunctory way), to talk to you and with you (but not bog you down with chitchat), and to smile at you as you walk by. It’s as if they really like you. Like they’re happy to be there. Like you’re one of them.
  • Informational: Whole Foods can’t stop talking about where they got the food they sell, how it was made, who made it, where it’s going, or what’s going to happen to it when you throw out the leftovers. This kind of information is on the pack, on electronic displays, on chalkboards throughout the store, in brochures around the store, on websites, and in press releases. They give new meaning to the word “transparent.”
  • Authenticity: Whole Foods’ consumers want a reason to believe, and they love a credible, authentic voice that delivers on its promise.

Whole Foods has been able to create value (which justifies high prices) not just by providing hard-to-find organic or all-natural products and labels. They’ve also created a high-touch, overtly humanized experience that is designed to make you, the shopper, feel smarter, healthier, cooler, and wealthier than you do in any other food shopping experience.


15 thoughts on “Social Class & Whole Foods

  1. Chris Lantagne May 6, 2015 / 4:05 pm

    I find the concept of social classes to be very interesting. I certainly agree that upper class people are going to be more focused on quality, innovation and the attention that products give them and that lower class people are focused more on price. I think something that most people don’t really understand, or want to understand, is how you said that the consumption of products are different. Upper class people are going to be going on different vacations, drive different cars and many other things. That’s why you hear upper class people state that they don’t have enough money for certain things. The upper class also has much higher expenses than the other classes as well. Perfect example are property taxes. People in Scarsdale, NY pay 7-8 times more in property taxes than most of the towns in Massachusetts (and even towns bordering Scarsdale, like White Plains, where Scarsdale pays about 50% more). Lower class people tend to forget that every expense they have is nowhere near the same as an upper class person.

    In the case of Whole Foods, this is just another example of how upper class people prefer higher quality brands and are willing to pay a premium.


  2. Lindsey Mattos May 6, 2015 / 8:41 pm

    Whole Foods is probably my favorite place to buy groceries and i HATE grocery shopping. I believe this type of market of health conscious consumers is still growing, so for now and probably for a long time, natural grocers are going to get away with charging a lot of money for their foods. Once the country as a whole figures out that it is healthy and more profitable for our neighborhoods to buy and eat local foods then maybe prices could be driven down by more volume. On the other end of that is the fact that lower class people do not have these types of places to buy fresh and local vegetables necessarily and no transportation to reach them either. Slowly cities are catching on and opening farmers markets, but still we are a long way away from having the masses realize this is a better way of eating.


  3. Yafen Liu May 6, 2015 / 10:19 pm

    I shopped at Whole Foods few days ago. Honestly, the price of Whole Foods is a little expensive, but is affordable. Whole Foods provides consumers totally natural and organic food, which is the reason why the products are expensive. However, consumers who want to enjoy a healthy and balance lifestyle will definitely choose Whole Foods. Additionally, since consumers are aiming for health currently and their income grows, it is clearly that more and more consumers will shop at Whole Foods.


    • Ryan MacLeod May 7, 2015 / 1:39 am

      I agree with Yafen in that whole foods is expensive but affordable too. They same to be able to cater from the lower middle to the upper upper. I think the value in whole foods is in the quality of their products that they sell, not necessarily the customer experience.


  4. Michael Carli May 7, 2015 / 1:23 am

    I like seeing the 6 social classes defined. It makes me think of stores that try to cater to as many of the social classes as possible based on the location. A great example I can think of is Macy’s locations in the Boston area. If you compare what kind of clothing and pricepoints they carry at their locations, you’ll see how they build their inventory based on the economics of the surrounding community. From my experience, the Cambridgeside Galleria mall location that attracts lower income people caters their clothing to the Upper Lower class. Then, Macy’s at the Square One Mall in Saugus caters to the Lower Middle class. The suburban locations in Danvers, Braintree, and Burlington cater to the Upper Middle class. And Finally, the Financial District location in Boston caters to the Lower Upper class. It’s smart that they carry the right type of pricepoint and style based on their surrounding clientele.


  5. Sirisha Pochiraju May 7, 2015 / 1:40 am

    I would love to be able to shop for some items at Whole Foods, I would never do my grocery shopping there on a regular basis. It’s far too expensive! But I don’t shop at Walmart either regardless of their low prices. buy organic (in addition to checking the source of the food). So, yes..I bought at WF – mostly sale items. Why should anybody pay more at Whole Foods for the same product that they can buy at WalMart for less money?


  6. Zi Wang May 7, 2015 / 2:58 am

    Personally, social class is a important factor for company’s marketing strategy. I think that each company should make sense what their products match relative socila class before they sell. In this way, company can know their position of products. I believe that social class is interesting topic which we should continue to study in the future.


  7. Jim Butterworth May 7, 2015 / 1:27 pm

    I think in most cases where you shop is a catch 22 situation. Grocery store chains have target markets, which include social class. If you live in a poor area, you will have discount grocers in your area. Should you want to shop at a different, more expensive chain you will have to travel. Conversely, the more elite grocers, targeting a higher income customer, will open in higher income areas. This again means that the more affluent shopper would have to travel to shop at a discount grocer. As we tend to shop for groceries at locations close to our homes, and grocers build stores in their target market areas, it is almost a self fulfilling prophecy that lower income people shop at discount grocers, and more affluent people shop at more elite grocers.


  8. Nandish Patel May 7, 2015 / 2:09 pm

    I totally agree with the division of the classes. And there will always be a division of classes among the people based on their job and business or say how much money they make. A guy with million dollar income won’t go to a dollar tree shop to buy anything unless its convenient to him. He will never drive a car of Kia, Chrysler or Toyota. As the income increases a person is more tempted to use better things. This is what make social classes. And so the companies divide their products as per different classes or target some specific class of people for their products. Like Mercedes, BMW will target the whole section of upper class and also the section of upper middle class while Honda and Toyota will target all middle class section.


  9. Linsey Walker May 7, 2015 / 3:10 pm

    This article discusses Whole Foods as part of a shift in affluent marketing, from the more tasteful, restrained look that many companies opt for in order to target more affluent social classes to a funkier place boasting the 5 attributes you list (provenance, inclusion, egalitarian, informational, authenticity). These descriptors remind me of another grocery store, Trader Joe’s, which has fulfills all five criteria as well, despite not targeting the same affluent customers that Whole Foods does. Trader Joe’s is less expensive than Whole Foods but still has quality products (not as high quality as Whole Foods, but up there), often local, along with the mix of diverse employees who are happy to strike up a conversation with you at checkout. I find it interesting that with many of the same attributes, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are targeting different classes, with Whole Foods aiming higher than Trader Joe’s.


  10. Brendan Sullivan May 7, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    I do feel like the social classes do have far different buyer behavior. The higher class must be more willing to spend more money on higher quality products like you mentioned. Whole foods was a good example on how people eat. Lower class families do not spend the extra money on organic food. Instead they spend the money on other necessities. I still think they do have similar interests between the classes. There are just some places the higher classes solely buy stuff from that lower and middle class do not.


  11. Andrew Dresner May 7, 2015 / 7:52 pm

    The value that Whole Foods provides goes way beyond the quality of the product. I think the fact that the employees have a willingness to help provide customer service is what sets them apart. Every time I have been there they have been very engaging and informative about their products. This is part of the reason that people are attracted to Whole Foods and why they keep coming back.


  12. Eva Trinidad May 8, 2015 / 1:16 am

    I personally like Whole Foods to buy groceries than market basket. Even though Whole Foods groceries cost more I think it is worth its price since is a more healthier option. I like the service that is provided there and how the ambiance makes customers feel welcome in a way. I am the kind of person who will go after the quality of the product and not the price; When I am going to buy a certain product I look at its benefits and its quality. If I think that is worth the price I buy it.


  13. Catherine Cohen June 5, 2015 / 3:54 am

    For me quality of food is important and I do shop at whole foods. I agree that it is expensive but some products like their whole foods brand can be affordable. Thought their prices are higher than other grocery stores their products are better quality. Not only is their food a healthier option I find their service better than your average food store.


  14. Kevin Poulter May 7, 2016 / 1:18 am

    I love the idea of whole foods especially how the market is turning to a more health conscious. The price may be higher but your quality of food is better and better for you. I have been to Whole foods a couple of times and received a positive experience every time I went.


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