Walk through a Walmart superstore and you’ll see Wild Oats brand certified organic black beans, Wild Oats brand certified organic salsa, and Wild Oats spices such as certified organic ginger and nutmeg. The transition isn’t complete, yet, howver. A customer can buy certified organic salsa, but (at least on this recent visit) finding certified organic tortilla chips (or tortillas) wasn’t an option. And while Wild Oats organic milk and eggs are readily available, certified organic butter can’t be found.
But seeing so many choices for organic foods in Walmart—well-priced—is quite a change. Walmart, the largest seller of groceries in the US, is not known for “organic” food, and is certainly not known for local food. Its decision to offer certified organic products recognizes the dramatic growth in sales of organic food in the US. What is even more remarkable—and should make anyone in the food retail industry pay attention– are the retailer giant’s own internal research findings.
. . . . the country’s largest grocer did internal research that showed 91 percent of Walmart customers would purchase “affordable organic products in our stores.
That 91% of Walmart customers would buy organics if they had an affordable option to do so documents how important organic food options have become to American consumers.
As part of this journey Walmart is giving new life to the brand Wild Oats. But just what and who is Wild Oats?
Wild Oats started in 1987 in Boulder, Colorado, as a local organic food market. It quickly grew to over one hundred stores primarily located in the southwest and west coast. An early rival to Whole Foods, Wild Oats was purchased by Whole Foods in 2007. Earlier that same year, Wild Oats and Whole Foods both received recognition on the annual “CRO” list of 100 good corporate citizens . Whole Foods was 54 on the list; Wild Oats 59. (To give some context, Microsoft and Google are there too.)
If the merger had gone through, the Wild Oats brand might have disappeared entirely but the FTC objected, and in 2008 a court decision reversed the merger. Whole Foods had to sell a portion of the chain along with the rights to the brand name. Trader Joes and another chain known for organic foods received a portion of the retail store locations, but the brand name itself was bought by a corporate interest, Luberski Incorporated in 2010.
Like Walmart’s origins, as a small family operation that grew exponentially, Luberski Inc started as a small egg delivery business that became what is today one of the largest egg retailers in the U.S. Luberski also owns familiar organic brands Horizon and NestFresh, and the corporation plays a role as a major international agricultural commodity trader.
The story of Wild Oats doesn’t stay strictly with Luberski—it is now owned by former 7-11 CEO Jim Keyes along with Yucaipa Corporation, owned by billionaire Ron Burkle who made his money in building grocery chains. But Luberski’s push to suggest that Walmart consider an affordable organic brand—specially Wild Oats—was the major factor in the brand’s revival.
What a journey for one organic brand name.
While it is great to see organics as an affordable option, consumers of organic retail foods don’t only consider healthy food as a factor but also place high value on good corporate citizenship—arguably one of the reasons behind success stories like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Wild Oats was good enough to be on a list of good corporate citizens in 2007, right next to Whole Foods.
Will we once again see it on a list of top 100 good corporate citizens?
To ask the question another way, will the corporate food giants now moving so heavily into organic retail sales understand that organics consumer appeal isn’t just about the label? Only time will tell.