In 1986, Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee were hot on the Silver Screen. Americans bought countless cassettes and records of the hit song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” And for many of the participants in the 2011 WholeFoods Retailer Survey, it was right around the time they got their start in natural products retailing. With an average age of 25 years old, these stores’ legacies now span four decades, all of it beginning at an important time in natural products’ history.

In the mid-1980s, we were still somewhat young as an industry, but we were growing—and growing fast. Natural products were starting to catch on among the masses, many of whom were now accustomed to seeing yogurt and other health foods in grocery stores. Some of the most prominent retailers in our industry—like Whole Foods Market and Mrs. Gooch’s—were starting to make names for themselves and shaping the high standards to which our industry still holds itself.

It was a time of great exploration, done on the shoulders of the health pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s. We can never and should never forget the entrepreneurial spirit and idealism that spread through the industry. But at the same time, businesses that spend more time looking back at the past without keeping an eye on the future could be missing some important lessons.

Are You Keeping Up?
We might think of the mid-1980s as the industry’s transition from crawling to walking. As a new mother, I’m constantly reminded of developmental milestones and how easy it is to want to resist its forward momentum. Recently, I became weepy eyed as my husband and I were packing away some newborn clothes to make room for the larger sizes. I wiped away a tear, thinking about my fast-growing little boy. He was six months old, curious and wide-eyed; I would never again hold him as a teeny tiny baby who squawked to be fed every hour and clung to me whenever I scooped him up.

Just then, my husband said, “How did he get to that end of the crib?” I backed little Derek to the far end of the crib, put a toy at the other and watched in amazement as he army-crawled toward his goal. It wasn’t graceful by any means, but he was officially on the move.

As I was trying desperately to hold onto the past, my little boy was boldly marching (well…crawling) into the future. Slowly, but surely, he was exercising his independence. And, I’d nearly missed the big event as I clung to his first booties and bibs.

I realized, you cannot move forward while your eyes are glued to the past. Today, the natural products industry has moved past walking to running, and if you aren’t at least jogging along at a steady pace of progress, you might get left in the dust. Our most successful retailers (according to this year’s survey) are those that embrace their roots as natural products pioneers, but have also taken steps to spread their wings as health educators. Some may have started as primarily vitamin shops, and now also offer big—but manageable—prepared foods and produce sections to meet the needs of today’s busy families.

These pioneering stores have proudly come into their own and will surely be our leaders in the decades to come. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher


Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2011