How Whole Foods "Primes" You To Shop

Have you ever been primed? I mean has anyone ever deliberately influenced your subconscious mind and altered your perception of reality without your knowing it? Whole Foods Market, and others, are doing it to you right now.

Derren Brown, a British illusionist famous for his mind-reading act, set out to prove just how susceptible we are to the many thousands of signals we're exposed to each day. He approached two creatives from the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi for the "test." On their journey to his office, Brown arranged for carefully placed clues to appear surreptitiously on posters and balloons, in shop windows, and on t-shirts worn by passing pedestrians.

Upon their arrival, the two creatives were given 20 minutes to come up with a campaign for a fictional taxidermy store. Derren Brown also left them a sealed envelope that was only to be opened once they'd presented their campaign. Twenty minutes later, they presented and then opened the envelope. Lo and behold, Derren Brown's plans for the taxidermy store were remarkably similar to the ad campaign, with an astounding 95% overlap.

An interesting experiment, you may say, but hardly a trick you'd fall for. But bear this in mind—it's more than likely you were well primed the last time you went shopping.

Let's take for example Whole Foods, a market chain priding itself on selling the highest quality, freshest, and most environmentally sound produce. No one could argue that their selection of organic food and take-away meals are whole, hearty, and totally delicious. But how much thought have you given to how they're actually presenting their wares? Have you considered the carefully planning that's goes into every detail that meets the eye?

In my new book Brandwashed, I explore the many strategies retailers use to encourage us to spend more than we need to—more than we intend to. Without a shadow of doubt, Whole Foods leads the pack in consumer priming.

Let's pay a visit to Whole Foods' splendid Columbus Circle store in New York City. As you descend the escalator you enter the realm of a freshly cut flowers. These are what advertisers call "symbolics"—unconscious suggestions. In this case, letting us know that what's before us is bursting with freshness.

Flowers, as everyone knows, are among the freshest, most perishable objects on earth. Which is why fresh flowers are placed right up front—to "prime" us to think of freshness the moment we enter the store. Consider the opposite—what if we entered the store and were greeted with stacks of canned tuna and plastic flowers? Having been primed at the outset, we continue to carry that association, albeit subconsciously, with us as we shop.

The prices for the flowers, as for all the fresh fruits and vegetables, are scrawled in chalk on fragments of black slate—a tradition of outdoor European marketplaces. It's as if the farmer pulled up in front of Whole Foods just this morning, unloaded his produce, then hopped back in his flatbed truck to drive back upstate to his country farm. The dashed-off scrawl also suggests the price changes daily, just as it might at a roadside farm stand or local market. But in fact, most of the produce was flown in days ago, its price set at the Whole Foods corporate headquarters in Texas. Not only do the prices stay fixed, but what might look like chalk on the board is actually indelible; the signs have been mass-produced in a factory.

Ever notice that there's ice everywhere in this store? Why? Does hummus really need to be kept so cold? What about cucumber-and-yogurt dip? No and no. This ice is another symbolic. Similarly, for years now supermarkets have been sprinkling select vegetables with regular drops of water—a trend that began in Denmark. Why? Like ice displays, those sprinkled drops serve as a symbolic, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. Ironically, that same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise. So much for perception versus reality.

Speaking of fruit, you may think a banana is just a banana, but it's not. Dole and other banana growers have turned the creation of a banana into a science, in part to manipulate perceptions of freshness. In fact, they've issued a banana guide to greengrocers, illustrating the various color stages a banana can attain during its life cycle. Each color represents the sales potential for the banana in question. For example, sales records show that bananas with Pantone color 13-0858 (otherwise known as Vibrant Yellow) are less likely to sell than bananas with Pantone color 12-0752 (also called Buttercup), which is one grade warmer, visually, and seems to imply a riper, fresher fruit. Companies like Dole have analyzed the sales effects of all varieties of color and, as a result, plant their crops under conditions most ideal to creating the right 'color.' And as for apples? Believe it or not, my research found that while it may look fresh, the average apple you see in the supermarket is actually 14 months old.

Then there's those cardboard boxes with anywhere from eight to ten fresh cantaloupes packed inside each one. These boxes could have been unpacked easily by any one of Whole Foods' employees, but they're left that way on purpose. Why? For that rustic, aw-shucks touch. In other words, it's a symbolic to reinforce the idea of old-time simplicity. But wait, something about these boxes looks off. Upon close inspection, this stack of crates looks like one giant cardboard box. It can't be, can it? It is. In fact, it's one humongous cardboard box with fissures cut carefully down the side that faces consumers (most likely by some industrial machinery at a factory in China) to make it appear as though this one giant cardboard box is made up of multiple stacked boxes. It's ingenious in its ability to evoke the image of Grapes of Wrath-era laborers piling box after box of fresh fruit into the store.

So the next time you happen to grab your wallet to go shopping, don't be fooled: retailers for better or for worse, are the masters of seduction and priming—brandwashing us to believe in perception rather than reality.

BrandwashedMartin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best—seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

Read more by Lindstrom: Creating Custom-Made Success

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[Image: Flickr user wfmmetcalf]

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  • mc

    Intresting but a couple of things are off. Start with food saftey temps. That's what the ice is for.

  • Eugene

    Wow, just wow.  Can't believe all these negative comments about the article.  It's like all the folks who are riding the organic wave can't come to grips that their Holy Grail of supermarkets is gonna try to pull a fast one over them.  It's plain marketing folks and they're doing a great job at it.  This happens everywhere and, yes, we get influenced by it, for better or worse.  Is he saying the products there are shit?  Is he implying all employees are deceitful?  No, he's just pointing out some of the tactics used to entice buyers.  Get a grip, hippies.  You like shiny stuff just like the rest of us and Whole Foods knows that.  Don't be so hurt that the author picked apart your favorite big-box supermarket.  He could've picked any other corporation but chose one that's widely popular in our current enviro-conscious society to provide greater contrast.  It's good marketing on his part, yeah?

    And you know what?  Here's a reality check: Ugly food is still highly edible and healthy for you.

  • Jason

    Did you realize that if a food retailer allows potentially hazardous foods to rise to a temperature of 41 degrees or higher, that it must be thrown out?  In some states, 2 out-of-temp samples from a display can be cause for an inspector to toss the entire display (even if all the others are in-temp), or if the samples are found in a refrigerated case, all of the product in the entire case can be ordered destroyed.

    Hummus that does not have artificial preservatives in it is a "potentially hazardous food".   Yogurt without artificial preservatives must also be kept under 41 degrees.

    Ice is among the most reliable of devices for keeping items that are mandated by law to be kept cold, kept cold.

    Air is among the least effective medium for keeping things cold in, that's why produce "wet walls" are kept wet, because the produce in that wall must be kept chilled.  

    Perhaps you should have familiarized yourself with the USDA food code before you started spouting off about what does and doesn't need to be kept cold. 

    Almost every single point you made about Whole Foods is false. 

    Or were you "priming" the readers to call you out on your multitude of errors?  It worked.

  • erinrokz

    What a loaded article.

    You really think people go to Whole Foods, a more costly company, than regular stores because of a few carefully placed objects and set-ups? Please. Saying you bought it at Whole Foods can be brag-worthy to friends. Saying you're shopping there makes it look like you're eating healthier. It's about image and Whole Foods has a great image about health- which is really what society is focusing on and has been for centuries.
    It also has to do with the fact that Whole Foods carries a lot of natural products you can't find anywhere (dates on the east coast, for instance). There's some really bizarre items that you just can't find in your local walmarts, targets, ralph's, smiths, trader joes, henry's, or wegmans. Whole Foods has a pretty versatile selection.

    They have 'do it yourself products' that you won't find in other stores. I have ground my own peanut butter with no additives in a Whole Foods. Considering it takes me hours at home to unshell, put the peanuts in a food processor, wait, and then clean... I rather head to whole foods where it takes 15 minutes with a stronger machine I cannot afford.

    Most don't really care about the flowers, chalk, or anything else. We really don't notice. Displays we do notice. Fresh looking fruit and vegetables we notice. The quality isn't always the greatest at Whole Foods, but at least when I head there, I see less wilting greens than any other place I've shopped at.

    Finally, I always recieve help from the employees in a Whole Foods. I usually get asked twice while I'm there if I need any help and they know their products very well. Generally because they are a smaller store. Other places are so unhelpful and will say they don't carry a certain item that with a little exploration, you end up finding after your 20th aisle hunt. Having customer service does bring in more people to your store, even if your prices are higher than what they would pay elsewhere.

    The author drew at really thin straws for this article.

  • karen simmons

    It's called visual merchandising, and it's been around at least as long as the world's oldest profession. But someone comes along with some clever book titles such as "Buyology" and "Brandwashing," and he repackages age-old concepts of visual merchandising to make them seem like something new, insidious and almost dangerous.

    Not buyin' it. Go brandwash someone else.

  • kristine taylor

    Thank you for pointing out what every grocery store I have been to does to brand wash me!  If you haven't shopped at a Ralphs, Trader Joes, Albertsons, etc then you have missed their flowers as you walk in and the ice etc..etc..  Thank you Whole Foods for having a organized, neat, healthy, and clean store.  I shop at Whole Foods and drive 25 minutes to get there even though there are 10 grocery stores in between because of the layout in their store.  I also have bought the same food items for over 20 years and YES I enjoy their seasonal selections of gourmet chocolates that I sometimes get "Brandwashed" into buying.

  • jcarb

    Please remove the part of the article about the chalkboards being mass produced.  I see that you've responded to people's comments about the chalkboards but this article is out on yahoo, etc. and not everyone reads the comments so as long as it's in the article you are presenting an untrue impression.

    As a store artist it's pretty insulting to have my (and a whole lot of other people's) whole job declared non existent.  At my store we have 3 full time store artists to cover 7 days a week (that's right- we have that many price changes EVERY day).  We definitely handwrite all the foamcore, paper, chalkboard, posterboard, & glass case signage, and there is handwriting training when you start at this job to learn the proper font.  Even the computer printed signs are designed by regional designers & printed by store artists, every store, every day.  There is no mass producing factory, everything is done in house. 

    I don't understand why you think scratching a sign to see if the "chalk" was real effectively substitutes asking an actual employee if there is a person who creates all the signs.  How is that responsible journalism? 

  • Jeff Hancock

    You're right, he's quite wrong on that point. My partner was a graphic artist at Whole Foods for a few years until recently, and making those signs was a significant part of her job. None of those came from a factory.

  • Melissa

    Yes, agreed. I've been a store artist/sign maker for going on 4 years. I do all my store's paper signage and chalkboards in house. In fact, our customers have probably seen me out on the street, relettering our enormous board in the parking lot. Or they've seen me lugging boards around, taking them upstairs to rework them.

    Real people do that work in store.

    Of *course* we can't use traditional chalk - it'd be gone in an hour with either wet conditions or folks rubbing on them. We use chalk ink or, in some permanent decor pieces, acrylic paints or the like.Go to a store and ask to talk to the store artist. A real human will come down and tell you they did that artwork. Then apologize and congratulate them on beautiful work well done.

  • lorap

    This article is off in so many was but as one of the resident in store artists I am totally offended that this guy thinks these chalkboards get shipped in. it takes a lot of practice and hard work to get these chalkboards on the sales floor. As for the prices being fixed i can't tell you how many times I've had to redo a chalkboard because they got a better deal and wanted to lower the price. Did this guy even talk to anyone or just made up his own ideas out of thin air?

  • poecooper

    14 month old apples?  Is this a typo?  Please provide your source for this information in the comments.  

  • elliot

    worked at Whole Foods for over five years, in four different stores,
    two different regions; this person obviously has not. Although I am
    hesitant to defend Whole Foods for a number of reasons, this person is
    simply making assumptions and passing them for fact.

    Flowers are almost always at the entrance of every store that carries
    them. This is retail 101, not invented by Whole Foods, although most
    certainly reinforced by them.

    The signs are not mass produced in a factory. They're made in the store
    on a daily basis. And prices
    most definitely change, often on a daily basis, which is why Whole Foods created the dreaded "sign walk ritual" for it's leadership employees.

    3) I've never seen a piece of Dole fruit for sale in a Whole Foods.

    Regarding an on old apple, the ones covered in wax will be much older
    than the often locally sourced ones you are more likely to find at
    Farmers Markets and Whole Foods.

    5) Those aww shux empty boxes used
    in displays are most certainly stacked by laborers, often repeatedly in
    one day until the shape conforms to one that pleases leadership Fruit arrives in different boxes that are not exactly
    display ready. It does not arrive by robot and most certainly does
    not stack itself. A lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes at Whole Foods.
    Some stores make it look easy, but I promise you, just like every other
    grocery store around the country there are rogues of under paid
    laborers behind the artisan facade.

  • Juliansea

    What's more disturbing to me than being "led" by carefully considered marketing displays is being mislead by what should be fact-checked journalism. it's irresponsible to make statements to bolster your insinuation that are simply untrue.

    You like to speculate that things like the signs and display boxes are "made in a factory" and "probably in China." As speculation that's pretty raw, and I can assure you that at least one of those points is totally false.

    I have worked with the Store Artist at a Whole Foods store. Almost every store has one, and they paint all the signs that you see. They have an enormous amount of leeway in what they paint, which is one of the things that gives each store its unique character. They use a paint that looks like chalk, but washes off with spray cleaner. It's not "indelible." The signs are not made in factories - even the little signs that label things are printed and laminated in the store, by the Artist.

    Saying that things are "factory made" and "probably from China" may sound good, underscoring the point you'd like to make, but you can't play fast and loose with the facts. 

  • Peggy

    I'm in love with this concept!!!!!   Where I help  I have a free blog , no ads, with outstanding written sasy move about my www.thtruffledpig,com

  • Laura Ferguson

    This article is a naive criticism of a subject the author doesn't seem to understand.

    1) Not all WF's use the water spray method for keeping produce fresh, but they all work tremendously hard to keep produce looking beautiful.  Our local Whole Foods now displays certain fruits in reuseable pulp fruit baskets -- which eliminates the need to use plastic bags.  

    2) Not all farmers market stands are from small farms, and it is rare in some areas to find organic foods at farmers markets, because those who run really small farms can't afford to qualify their farms as organic.  Whole Foods sells a wide variety of organic and local produce.  In our area, (DC), Whole Foods also hosts farmers markets.  

    3) They use chalkboards with reuseable chalk paint [see below] -- they don't ship these signs in with every product -- they are updated frequently by their resident chalk artist.  In certain departments, like the fish department and the meat department, they are updated on the fly when items are out of stock.  

    4) I've been in the Columbus Circle Whole Foods many times.  They efficiently process an enormous Manhattan lunch crowd.  Most Whole Foods have a prepared food section, but very few have the variety and quantity of prepared foods offered at this store.  While the grocery is busy, this particular store is as much restaurant as it is a grocery.    Still any critical analysis of a companies stores should require a trip to a couple different locations, and hopefully include some more typical locations.

    5) Freshly picked (as in U-Pick) apples can be stored up the 3 months in your own fridge.  If you are buying apples that are from the US in the spring, it is almost certain that they have been carefully stored in a factory.  These are the apples we get in most grocery stores.  Whole Foods goes to great efforts to stock local fresh produce.  There are signs around the store indicating which foods are most local and freshest.  This isn't just propaganda, this is relevant information that helps consumers make better choices.  Few competitors go to this length and most neglect their produce sections in favor of selling over-packaged, over-priced food.  At most competitor stores organic foods are just an after thought.

    6) The allusions to Whole Foods prices are misguided.  One can shop at Whole Foods very economically.  One can also purchase top of the line products with corresponding prices.  Your total bill will be high if you purchase gourmet foods, but if you purchase their store line -- 365 -- you will find it is very competitive especially when the offering is organic.  Here is an experiement.  Try comparing organic prices at Whole Foods to organic prices at Safeway [or Kroger, or Harris Teeter, etc] apple to apple.  While you are doing it, compare the quality of the produce.  Take a bite of each apple.  You will quickly find out why Whole Foods is so popular.  There produce is fresh, well cared for and the produce department staff can answer almost any question you have.  At Safeway/Kroger/Giant/Harris Teeter/etc you will have to go to customer service if you are shopping after 6pm at night and want a question answered about the produce.  Oh, and using a manhattan store for comparison just might skew things a bit, don't you think?

    I shop at all of these stores, and I make an effort to find the best deal for the best product.  I may pay more for chicken at Whole Foods, but I am grateful to know that that chicken has been treated ethically [they have a scale to help you select how green your meat is] and I trust that the meat is fresh.  I would like to buy chicken at the farmers market, but that would cost me as much as $20 more per bird, so I often don't.  At the other supermarkets, I'm limited to conventional overstuffed roasters and suspicious house brands which seem to be recalled about once a year.    When I shop at the competitor stores, I usually come home disappointed with by the selection offered.  At the end of the day, shopping at Whole Foods means that I bring home lovely produce, meats, and other products that enable me to cook healthy meals for my family. 
    There are some legitimate criticisms of Whole Foods, but I didn't find one of them in this article. 

  • Elitheman

    Good god you are all so naive. you all are refusing to believe the obvious just because you don't like it.

  • Andrea Barton Gurney

    This story is written as a Shocking Expose of what, good business
    practices that make customers happy?  Damn them!  Damn them to hell!.  Next installment:  how Whole Foods trains their employees to be friendly to you, answer questions, give directions with a smile because they want you to keep coming back and spend more money.  Teh bastards.

    (It would be a story if Whole Foods *didn't* try to make their products as appealing as possible or the shopping trip as visually pleasing as possible.  Try writing up Aldi.)

  • SayHi2YourMom4Me

    Why is everyone dissing the article it's just interesting stuff to think about.  The only think I can point out is that the water on the vegtables can help keep some of them from going limp as well, so that part not all just about illusion.  And are apples really 14 months old on average?  That's pretty interesting.