Since the Amazon deal, Whole Foods Market has been hyper-curating and -localizing its assortments, adding 3,000 local brands in the past five years, a 30% increase between 2017 and 2022.
On the operational front, Whole Foods had been centralizing its leadership structure before Buechel took the reins, but he has taken the restructuring one step further, a strategy he calls “store-centricity.”
“I want all of our support team members in the organization focused on our stores, around the customer and our team member experience,” he explains. “So we have rebranded. Historically, everyone in Austin was called global support. We had regional support, which is a regional team. But now we are trying to get rid of the words ‘global’ and ‘regional,’ and instead we are ‘store support.’ We want to make sure that all of our store support team members have a connection to our stores, have an understanding of how their work impacts the front lines.”
The company is also laser-focused on improving the customer experience, building back up its post-pandemic foodservice offering, and getting a little help on the tech side from Amazon with things like phasing out legacy technology.
“How do we give our customers the best possible experience, help our customers save time? We’ve got a number of things that we are experimenting [with] in that space,” says Buechel, referencing two Whole Foods stores featuring Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology.
As CIO, he stood up the retailer’s delivery and pickup businesses before the pandemic. Fast-forward to today: Whole Foods not only offers delivery and pickup for Prime and non-Prime shoppers, but it’s also a refuge for Amazon customers who need to return items.
“That’s another area [where] our customers just thank us,” says Buechel. “To be honest, we need more capacity, because it’s such an important step for our customers being able to have us as a place that they can return those packages. And it’s great for us, because in many cases, they come in to make a purchase as well.”
The retailer has introduced a pay-by-palm system — Amazon One — at most of its stores. According to Buechel, the feedback from shoppers has been more positive than negative “by far.” Whole Foods team members are also leveraging Amazon One to take advantage of their employee discount.
Additionally, the company has been introducing electronic shelf labels to stores, and Buechel says that he’s excited about the possibilities.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” he notes. “I see challenges through many different iterations of having a technology experience that is great for the customer, great for our team members in helping support it, and it’s a right financial decision to make.”
Buechel adds that Whole Foods is also looking at deploying digital receipts technology to streamline that process, since “our customers are asking for that.”
The company’s culinary innovation center in Austin has a brilliant team working to expand its offering now that retail foodservice demand has largely returned since the pandemic. PG visited the foodservice operations center and sampled such new offerings as plant-based sushi, fresh sandwiches with elevated ingredients, and scrumptious (and all-natural) cakes and breads.
Probably the biggest operational priority for Buechel in the coming year, however, will be the phaseout of decades-old legacy technology.
“This has been one of the things we’ve been really excited about with Amazon,” he says. “It’s going to have a meaningful impact on our team members, where today, they’re doing a lot of non-value-added work. As we help make things super-easy, it’s going to make our team member engagement a lot better, but it’s also going to allow us to reinvest team member time back into our customer experience.”
He notes that the retailer has been testing some of the new tech at a store, and that it has helped improve efficiencies with regard to ordering and in-stocks.
“If we can get it right, our in-stocks increase and that’s great for customers, our shrink reduces because we’re ordering the right product, but our customer satisfaction goes up because our team members are spending more time on the floor and interacting with them as well,” explains Buechel.
Whether it’s testing new systems or products, Buechel says that he’s excited to leverage the best of Amazon to support customers, team members, suppliers and stakeholders as the retailer looks to the future.
“That’s my focus,” he asserts. “We get so many great ideas, and we have lots of ways that we can test really quickly. So our goal is to figure out which are the ones that actually can stick and scale.”