Shoppers across the US are claiming that the quality of Whole Foods' produce has tanked since it was acquired by Amazon, and some say they're abandoning the grocery chain as a result.
In interviews with Business Insider and in social-media posts, dozens of shoppers have complained about finding bruised, discolored, tasteless, and rotten produce in Whole Foods stores from California to New York over the past couple of months.
Shoppers have also reported out-of-stock issues, saying it's impossible to find items that they've been buying at Whole Foods for years, such as frisée, loose carrots, and Brussels sprouts. Several said fruits and vegetables such as avocados are spoiling faster than usual.
It's not immediately clear what's changed — Whole Foods says nothing — but many customers think the difference is e-commerce giant Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in August. While some of this may be a matter of perception among customers worried about what the Amazon deal means for their favorite store, analysts at one Wall Street investment bank have noticed detrimental changes at stores they've been routinely visiting, including what they call the "conventionalization" of Whole Foods.
"I purchased apples that tasted like water, an orange that was yellow and tough on the inside, and a bruised lemon," said Susie Ippolito, who shopped at a Whole Foods store in Manhattan's Upper East Side two to three times a week until recently. "That was the last time I went to Whole Foods. If you can't sell me a decent apple in the height of apple season, I've lost all faith in your store."
Whole Foods told Business Insider it had made no recent changes that would affect the quality or availability of its produce. The company said it had strict processes to ensure that only high-quality produce makes it into its stores and that nothing has changed about those procedures.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
"At Whole Foods Market, we are passionate about the quality of the food we offer," said A.C. Gallo, president and chief operating officer at Whole Foods. "We have high standards, and we only want to sell the highest quality, freshest produce possible. That will always remain at the core of our business."
More than half a dozen shoppers told Business Insider that they started seeing evidence of declining quality in stores within weeks of the Amazon-Whole Foods deal closing in August.
Kedar Mate, of Richmond, Virginia, said the seafood selection on his recent visits to Whole Foods had been meager and "depressing" and the shelves of leafy greens such as kale and chard that are typically "chock full" have been barren.
He cited out-of-stock issues on items like loose carrots and said he's noticed more spoilage among the strawberries. Mate said that after five years of weekly shops at Whole Foods, he has started searching for a new grocer.
Janet Wagner, of Santa Monica, California, told Business Insider she was abandoning Whole Foods after years of shopping there twice a week.
"It has been very disappointing to witness the decline of the Whole Foods shopping experience since the Amazon acquisition," Wagner said. "The market has a totally different vibe. Besides the diminished quality of fruits and vegetables, lots of items are out of stock."
Over the past few months, prices have dropped on some of her staple purchases, like bananas, tomatoes, and avocados, but they're rotting faster than in the past, she said.
"Personally, I would rather pay more and get excellent quality fruits and vegetables," she said. "This isn't happening anymore at Whole Foods."
Wagner blames Amazon for the changes.
"I used to think of Whole Foods as a great and socially conscious corporation," she said. "Not anymore. It has become just another version of Amazon, which I don't associate with quality."
Shopper Katherine McEachen also blames Amazon for what she says is "terrible quality" in the produce section of her local Whole Foods stores, in Fairfield, Connecticut. She complained about finding "bone-dry" beets, soft grapes, rubbery asparagus, and a shrinking supply of organic items over the past couple of months.
"Now I have to shop at a fourth store for what Whole Foods can no longer provide me at the price or the quality I want," she said.
Research analysts at Barclays , the investment bank, have noticed some changes at Whole Foods as well. They recently found one store in "disarray" with boxes blocking aisles and "significant restocking taking place at 10 a.m.," according to a note to clients. They also found that some products have been migrating to different areas of the store. Whole Foods' 365 eggs moved from the dairy section to below the meat counter, for example.
"We found this placement to be somewhat odd and confusing, although an interesting test of using refrigerated space in new ways," the analysts wrote. "At one store we have routinely visited, we also noticed that packaged mushrooms continue to move around the produce section."
The analysts also reported finding more prominent displays of conventional, nonorganic items such as Tropicana Orange Juice, HP Sauce, Carr's Table Water Crackers, and Vitamin Water.
"The item additions and more prominent display of some previously sold 'conventional' items lead us to believe the conventionalization of Whole Foods is underway, because the ingredients in some of these items clearly do not meet the standards (i.e., organic, natural, etc.) Whole Foods had held itself to prior to its acquisition (especially Vitamin Water and Carr's)," they wrote.
Whole Foods has embarked on an effort over the past couple of years to streamline food buying by shifting more of the responsibility for that process from its regional offices across the country to its headquarters in Austin.
This strategy, which aims to trim costs and make it easier for suppliers to do business with Whole Foods, is bringing the company's operations more in line with a conventional grocer, like Kroger.
But Whole Foods said those changes haven't affected its produce department. The company said it has produce buyers in all regions of the country who maintain relationships with local growers and that it has field inspectors who are on the road year-round seeking out the "best of the best" in terms of produce.
The company also said that Amazon has not made any changes to its quality standards.
Customers who are disappointed with the quality of produce they have purchased should bring a receipt to their store for a full refund, the company said.
Despite these reassurances, some customers are still skeptical of what they perceive as Amazon's version of Whole Foods. It's possible that customers' perception of Amazon — which one shopper described to Business Insider as "all about cut-throat pricing" and "squeezing out the little guy" — has made them more heavily scrutinize Whole Foods during recent shopping trips.
But customers like Ippolito say they're clear on what's going on, and it's not just hyper-scrutiny.
"Whole Foods built their brand identity around superior quality and rare finds. Amazon eliminated these aspects and turned it into a regular grocery experience," Ippolito said. "Price reductions are appreciated, but not at the expense of reliable quality."
She isn't alone. Here's what other people have said on social media:
Agree — same story in milwaukee. Inventory seems thin and they’re regularly out of basic produce items.— Ann (@alaatsch) November 29, 2017
@WholeFoods man oh man has Whole Foods gone down since Amazon took over! Bad produce and higher prices— DonaldminusT. (@DQuonal) October 17, 2017
Since amazon bought Whole Foods the quality of the produce has been soooo shitty— damn baby (@chillinkillin_) October 5, 2017