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.