Leading the Way
When it comes to finding high quality, great-tasting products for our stores, we don’t rely on shortcuts! You’ve got to get up from behind that desk and get out there! That’s why our sourcing teams spend so much time in the field – meeting producers, sampling products, hugging cows, and generally getting their hands dirty. Simply put – we want to believe in what we sell, and we’re always out there striving to find the next big thing!
“Let’s make sure that the meat that we eat comes from animals that are raised to the highest animal welfare standard.”
Theo Weening, VP – Meat & Poultry
Sourcing Whole Foods Market Style
Whole Story: OK! Tell us who you are and what you do.
Alyssa Vescio: My name is Alyssa Vescio, and I lead merchandising for the center of the store. So that is inclusive of grocery, wellness and beauty, the local brands and exclusive brands.
WS: From your perspective, as a leader in purchasing, what defines the Whole Foods Market approach to sourcing products, and how is it unique in the industry?
AV: We start with purpose and Quality Standards. We have specific Quality Standards for ingredients and sourcing that are non-negotiable for us, and for our exclusive brands, some of those standards are even stronger. Along with standards, we look at which products we want for our assortment, and the suppliers that we choose to work with, often considering other factors beyond what our standards require.
WS: And so then how do you identify suppliers that will align with those starting points?
AV: You know, I think part of it is, in general when we’re looking for a supplier for the very first time, and we don’t have a relationship, some of it starts from “feel.” Like you can get a sense when you talk to someone else about whether they have a similar purpose and mission in mind. I like to start by asking about their story. Why did they create their company? What is the purpose they had in mind? How do they see impact in their company? From there, we have a lot of very specific questions like, are they using ingredients we like or ones we don’t allow? What are their sourcing practices? We have a supplier code of conduct that very clearly articulates what our suppliers have to have in place. And so that almost serves as a checklist for us. Like if their vibe and the relationship is good, if we’re like-minded and our purposes are similar, then we have this very documented and disciplined set of Quality Standards that we check off, which then really serves as a greenlight for us to move forward.
WS: Why do you think that that sort of relationship model between Whole Foods Market and suppliers works so well?
AV: Part of what’s truly unique about Whole Foods Market is that one of our core values as a company is about win-win partnerships with suppliers. I think for a lot of other companies, in the pursuit of trying to serve a core stakeholder of customers, they are willing to negotiate bottom-dollar costs in a way that might not be sustainable or feasible for suppliers. I think the way that a lot of other companies go after things like supplier negotiations is about putting the needs of the retailer first. For us, what’s unique is that we think about our stakeholders more broadly. We think about the importance of not only serving our customers but also serving our broader community inclusive of suppliers. And so while we have a responsibility to ensure that we are negotiating outcomes that are financially feasible over the long term for us as a company, we also hold ourselves accountable to understanding what the suppliers need. Because in order for us to be successful, long term we need our suppliers to also be successful, which means we can’t negotiate such a bottom dollar that it ultimately makes their own business goals unattainable. Along the same lines, we get supplier input when we’re developing new standards to help ensure they can meet a new standard without pricing their product out of the market. Taking that holistic perspective is something that’s truly unique about our business model and our relationships with suppliers.
WS: How do suppliers react to that approach?
AV: I think that they appreciate that. In my time at Whole Foods Market, working with suppliers, one of the things I consistently hear when I ask them for feedback is they appreciate our perspective. They appreciate the investments we make in understanding what their needs are. They appreciate our willingness to find common ground and they value the platform we provide that gives them an ability to fulfill their own missions, to bring their own products to market. So I would say that while we’ve changed a lot over the last few years, and our suppliers at times have had questions or feedback, the one consistent strength our suppliers have shared with us is about our commitment to our purpose, our unwavering Quality Standards, and how we engage with our suppliers on that path.
WS: And so kind of to wrap it all up, given that that approach takes a lot more time and resources from you and your team, what makes it worth the trouble in the end?
AV: Ultimately it means that we do good work, that we’re not doing work that’s singularly focused on an outcome or a bottom-dollar price, but is much more rewarding. It means the impact we have is greater, that we can serve, not only our customers but our communities, we can uphold and uplift the supplier base. We can also have a much more positive impact on the world, on people, and on the planet. We can move the industry forward by pushing ourselves to constantly do better – in our relationships with suppliers and in our Quality Standards. To me, that’s so much more rewarding and frankly, more important, than just driving a business for financial results.
WS: That approach is an ideal that you guys strive for, but how does it also give you unique tools to deal with situations where suppliers are not feeling like it’s an equitable relationship? How does this approach give you tools to deal with a situation where the suppliers have concerns about the relationship, or there’s a sourcing problem that you guys have to address?
AV: Ultimately, relationships are not perfect. And in working with the supplier community and sourcing, there are inevitably going to be challenges. There’s going be times where the direction we’re headed or a decision that we make is unpopular, or where we have to work with an individual supplier to hold them accountable, to either upholding our expectations or to evolving with us. But what’s unique about our approach is that, because we are purpose-driven and we’ve started from a place of commonality with suppliers, I think the suppliers generally understand that we are working with good intentions in the pursuit of a positive impact. They might not always love every decision that we make, but they’re willing to work through it with us. I also think that our approach generally isn’t about just holding firm, but also investing the energy to understand: why does the supplier have concerns? What is their goal in that interaction? What are their aims in working with us? And therefore, as we work through some of these challenging times, how do we have mutual understanding and ultimately get to a place of common good?
WS: What makes your team unique in the food industry?
AV: I’ve been at Whole Foods now for about four years. And one of the things I have been so surprised by is the sense of commitment and engagement our Team Members have. Like, what I have consistently felt is that people don’t only choose to work for Whole Foods Market because they need a paycheck. They also choose to work for Whole Foods Market because they want to do good work. And that fosters a level of engagement, of curiosity, of commitment that is so special. I have a team of people who are fully committed to our core values and our leadership principles, which means the way that they interact and invest in relationships is really rooted in progress and collaboration and uniting together around a common goal. And to me, that’s so special and different from anything I’ve ever experienced. The other thing is that I have a team full of people who have cultivated deep expertise, which gives them a platform to partner with suppliers and lead the industry forward.
WS: OK, so keeping all that in mind, what would you say to customers to convince them that Whole Foods is sincere, and that they should support the work that you’re doing behind the scenes?
AV: The thing I wish our customers knew was how seriously we take our work, that a lot of the things starting to trend for us are not new. We’ve been at this for a long time. Our values have been consistent since the beginning. And while we continue to evolve and push ourselves to get better and to grow, the root of who we are hasn’t changed, just the discipline by which we bring it to life has. We consistently revisit our Quality Standards to ensure that the decisions we’re making are backed up by the latest science. We have buyers that bring products to our Quality Standards team for review before we carry them. We look at ingredient decks to feel good about what we’re putting into our assortments and into our stores. What I really want our customers to understand is that we’re never resting on our laurels. We’re never comfortable with where we’re at. We’re constantly pushing to do better, to move things forward. And inevitably there is this trust then people can have when they shop in our stores. So if I take off my business hat for a second and think about myself as a customer, the reason why I choose to shop at Whole Foods is because I know that we have done the work in considering what our customers may care about, which means I don’t have to worry about everything. I don’t have to read every ingredient label. We take that work very, very seriously.
WS: Why are you personally committed to this sourcing model?
AV: I’m personally committed to sourcing thoughtfully because it’s the right thing to do to serve our customers and Team Members. There’s really no other option for me. I believe we have to have discipline. We have to look at our supply chain. We have to work closely with our suppliers to understand the decisions that they’re making, so ultimately we can feel like the product that’s delivered to our stores upholds our company values, as well as my personal values of commitment and authenticity.
WS: Big picture, what are your hopes for the future of the grocery industry and what role do you see Whole Foods Market playing in that?
AV: My hope is that more broadly, other retailers see the responsibility they have to make a positive impact on the world. That Whole Foods Market continues to lead the industry in the development of Quality Standards, in farming practices, and through things like regenerative agriculture, and that we continue to be on the cutting edge, taking those risks, moving things forward in a way that shapes where the world and our industry heads. My hope for the grocery industry is that we’re not alone. The more we can work together across the industry to invest in responsible sourcing, the more we can ensure that people around the world have a livable wage, the more we can ensure that people have nutritious food to feed their families, the more that we can ensure we have a powerful sustainable economy.