Whole Foods to close Feb. 22
It’s been a little less than two weeks since Whole Foods Market of Augusta announced that it would be closing as the national chain has had multiple struggles over the last few years with sales. Markdowns are continuing each day and the remaining inventory will be given to Golden Harvest Food Bank after the store closes its doors on Feb. 22 at 6 p.m.
The specialty grocer has earned many nicknames for its high prices including “Whole Paycheck” and “Whole Wallet.” That reputation kept many Augustans away and put it on the chopping block to be one of nine stores throughout the country that the company decided to close.
In June 2015, just nine months after the Augusta location opened, the New York Department of Consumer Affairs released a statement that they were investigating Whole Foods’ New York City stores for overcharging consumers anywhere from 80 cents for a package of pecan panko to nearly $15 for a package of coconut shrimp. After the announcement, stocks and profits for the company began to fall and never recovered, despite heavy marketing campaigns by the grocer to lower prices.
Around the same time, Kroger Co. began growing its already successful Simple Truth products, similar to organic and non-GMO items that Whole Foods carried. Over the years, many stores have carried more organic and natural products, leaving Whole Foods with less exclusivity in the market.
Impact on customers and employees
Kim Ball of Grovetown was a customer of Whole Foods before it closed on Feb. 22. With her grandson’s allergies to wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, a specialty store like Whole Foods was needed.
Even with specific needs, Ball said she shopped at Earth Fare more frequently than Whole Foods.
“I love Whole Foods, but it was just out of the way and difficult for me to get to,” Ball told Buzz on Biz. “Had it been in a different, more convenient location for me, I would have shopped there more often.”
For other customers, Whole Foods was their only option for certain foods for family members. Jennifer Ann Hurst’s son has an allergy to a protein found in cow’s milk. He has been to the hospital several times over the last three years as a result of the allergy. Losing Whole Foods means less access to foods without milk.
“Most people don’t realize that milk can be found in almost anything — potato chips, lunch meats, vitamins and lotions were just a few that surprised us,” Hurst said.
Hurst said she will be able to find some products at Publix but not as many as Whole Foods.
“Not only is this a loss for our family, but a loss for our community as well,” she said.
Customers are not the only ones directly impacted by the closure. Employees were reportedly shocked to hear about the store closing with such little notice. Stephanie Cook, a contracted worker at Whole Foods, is a brand ambassador and demo representative for natural and organic products, representing around 30 different brands to different stores.
Cook moved to the Augusta area from Southern California in June 2014 after learning about the new Whole Foods store from her sister who lives in the area. She had been working in the natural products industry for nearly a decade, and Cook felt like the store would be a great opportunity.
“It’s not just another grocery store, it is a melting pot of ethics, culture, environmental awareness and overall health and wellness,” Cook said.
Cook used her passion and knowledge to help build Whole Foods up in the community—literally, she helped with construction in its final phases, placing shelves and stocking products.
Her opportunity at Whole Foods came to a halt when she received a call from a Whole Foods team member in early February telling her that the store was closing.
“My heart completely sank,” she said.
Whole Foods Augusta made up the majority of Cook’s business, although she will still travel to Columbia to work at their location. She is weighing multiple options to move forward including moving to Charlotte to work at one of their four stores. Cook said many Whole Foods Augusta employees are considering the same thing.
Impact on businesses
Prior to Whole Foods’ opening in 2014, the Washington Crossing space underwent a total makeover and one business, Shangri La Chinese Restaurant, closed its doors to make room for more upscale retail and restaurants to match the Whole Foods demographic. Since the opening, more restaurants and retail stores have moved into the shopping center including Zoe’s Kitchen and Half-Moon Outfitters.
For Ruth Washington, store manager of Family Christian Bookstore in Washington Crossing, the news of the closure is “disappointing.”
“[Whole Foods] does draw in new customers when they go shopping,” Washington said.
The growth of the area created a number of traffic problems. The shopping center was difficult to get in and out of without driving down to the traffic light at Boy Scout Road, and the entrance was also very close to I-20’s entrance to Washington Rd. The intersection has seen numerous wrecks and frustrated drivers prior to Whole Foods’ arrival and only made things more clustered after opening day. Many drivers and customers learned to steer clear of the area.
While some tenants of the Washington Crossing may be concerned about the future of the shopping center, Good Earth Produce and Garden Center in Martinez may benefit from the Whole Foods closure.
In 2016, the business, which sells regionally grown produce, dry goods, frozen meat and plants, announced that it would be building an indoor facility next to its current location on Davis Road. According to an interview with Buzz on Biz in December 2016, Good Earth owner Rick Catts said the new indoor facility will be about 9,000 square feet and all products sold in the store will be made or grown within a 100-mile radius of Augusta.
Good Earth also extended a helping hand to Whole Foods employees via Facebook: “Like the rest of you, we at Good Earth are saddened by the news that Whole Foods will be closing. We would like to reach out to the employees of Whole Foods and ask that you consider employment with us. We are hiring!”
The post also said that their new store will be opening in a few weeks
The absence of Whole Foods will put Washington Crossing at only 73 percent occupied. The presence of restaurants will certainly keep visitors coming to the shopping center, but without an anchor store, the future of many businesses is uncertain.
Buzz on Biz attempted to contact the leasing agent for the property but phone calls were unreturned.