Whole Foods Use of Digital Signage to Create Meaningful Customer Experience:  A Case Study
by Ruth Eckles
I. Executive Summary
The digital age has given rise to tech-savvy consumers with multiple channels for communication, causing major shifts in the way stories are told and the way consumers and businesses interact with each other.  With more and more consumers purchasing and communicating online, the bricks-and-mortar retail store is currently being challenged to sink or swim with the current (Deloitte, 2011). 
This case study aims to examine these shifts in storytelling, technology and retail stores by looking at Whole Foods Market’s use of large video displays in their Greensboro and Charlotte stores in North Carolina.  The purpose of these displays is to tell the stories behind the products.  Though the company has experienced success with traditional in-store storytelling signage using text and photos, they are in the beginning stages of experimenting with digital signage, and are unsure if they are effectively engaging consumers with it (Medley, 2013).
In order to explore this question more deeply, this case will focus on three key issues regarding the use of large video displays in the retail environment, and their potential solutions:
1.      Consumer culture is changing:  research shows that consumers are more socially and environmentally conscious than in the past (Deloitte, 2011). 
Experts say:  The growing demand for sustainable products indicates an educational component is needed to give more details about the product.  Research shows that information is more understandable in the form of stories (Simmons, 2001). Therefore stories that effectively demonstrate social responsibility and sustainability are an important part of marketing the product and developing the brand.
2.      As a result of increasing e-commerce and multi-channel online communication (i.e. a customer can be inside a physical store, doing price comparison and research on their smartphones or tablets), the role and purpose of the bricks and mortar store is shifting (2011, Deloitte).
What the experts say:  In the past, retail stores were the venue that drove sales.  Brick-and-mortar stores are here to stay, but their purpose is now shifting to a physical environment that provides customers with an immersive “experience” of the brand and an opportunity to create education, meaning, and community.  These are opportunities for the retail stores to use their strengths; their physicality.  Stores have  physical space, physical products, and physical sales staff.  Stores can provide tactile, immersive experiences that they can’t get online, or with a smart phone or tablet.
3.    Large video displays can effectively engage consumers and provide   consumers with a more immersive experience—but there needs to be a cohesive message (Hull, 2012).
What the experts say:  while bigger screens do contribute to a more immersive experience, most of marketing’s energy and resources should go into the creation of an experience of the brand as opposed to the bells and whistles of the technology.  A cohesive, relatable story must be part of creating a brand experience.  Storytelling, marketing and technology need to come together to create a new breed of story.   This new story should be one that encompasses brand values while creating an immersive and useful in-store experience (Legorburu, 2012).
These key issues and potential solutions will be discussed in more detail in the Cultural Factors and Findings/Recommendations sections.  Research for this case study was conducted through an interview with Kate Medley, the multimedia storyteller of Whole Foods Market, marketing research and reports, books, and articles.

II. Introduction and Description:

The effectiveness of large video displays to create customer engagement in the retail environment is a particularly timely question.  With consumers increasingly researching and purchasing products online, sales in physical stores are waning, and companies are left questioning the purpose and value of their retail stores.  If the retail store is no longer a major sales venue, what are its’ other possibilities?
This case study aims to explore the most compelling research regarding the use of large digital displays in the retail environment to convey brand stories.  The research accessed will focus on the narrative elements needed in order for a story to be effective, how other companies are using large video displays and what elements need to be present in the video technology in order for it to be effective.  Research will be analyzed with the Whole Foods brand and audience in mind (i.e. what do Whole Foods customers want or not want when it comes to their in-store shopping experience?).  The goal is a more researched, big-picture view regarding how large-scale video displays can be used to engage customers in a specialized grocery store environment such as Whole Foods.

III. History:

Whole Foods Market was founded in 1980 by John Mackey.  The first store launched in Austin, Texas.  There are over 300 stores in the United States with emphasis placed on providing the freshest, healthiest, highest quality food to customers.  The Whole Foods brand is environmentally and socially conscious.
The history of storytelling at Whole Foods Market
Whole Foods Market was one of the first grocery stores to begin telling the stories behind their products around 2006 when Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking book The Omnivore’s Dilemma:  A Natural History of Four Meals first came out.  Pollan’s book sparked national interest in shifting from eating mass-produced food from anonymous venders to eating local, seasonal food.  Pollan’s book actually called out Whole Foods, claiming that though Whole Foods sold organic products, they were a big part of the problem in that the majority of food they produced was by a few massively huge corporations.  In this 2006 interview with Salon.com he says:
           “Farmers used to be able to go to the back door of Whole Foods in California after they were done at the farmers market and sell whatever was left over. But as Whole Foods grew, it went to this regional distribution system and now most of their produce comes from two companies. Still, the fact is that even that big organic corn farm is better for the environment and better for the eater than a conventional one. The idea is not to condemn Whole Foods or the organic movement but to hold them to a higher bar.” (Boudway, 2006).
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was quick to respond to the criticism and posted an open letter to Michael Pollan on the company blog:
           “I regret that you did not engage in any serious research about how Whole Foods Market actually does business or you would have discovered that we support local and small farm food production all over the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Whole Foods Market, despite its size, does not operate as a typical monolithic corporation such as Wal-Mart (with which you associate Whole Foods Market several times in your book). Our company continues to operate on a decentralized model wherein each of our 11 regions, as well as each store, has a high level of autonomy. Differences in product offerings, suppliers, and seasonal availability result in a significant variation of items on our shelves from region to region and even store to store within the same city.” (Mackey, 2006).
Apparently, Whole Foods was doing a good job of doing business locally, just not a very good job at communicating that to the outside world.  Enter into this picture, Kate Medlin, who had been observing this debate from afar.  Medlin, who had served as a photojournalist for the New York Times, was earning a Masters degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, and had just finished up a fellowship at The Poytner Institute, decided to write Whole Foods a letter, telling them, basically, that they needed her to tell their stories:
“I had been doing documentary work about the culture surrounding food, and the cultures of farming in the south, and food politics.  So I wrote Whole Foods a letter and said I think I have something to offer in that regard—you as a brand are getting called out by Michael Pollan and others for not doing this well (doing business with local, small-scale farmers and companies).  But you really are, in a lot of instances doing it really well—so there’s a lot of great storytelling that could happen to better those efforts.”
Medley was hired for a contract project and then eventually full time to tell the stories behind local products.  Sales numbers were what ultimately convinced the higher ups to hire her full-time as a multimedia storyteller.  Each time a local product was released along with a corresponding story, the sales numbers showed an increase (Medley, 2013).
The history of interactive displays in retail environments:  the kiosk
In the early 90’s, electronic kiosks made their first appearances.  These early touch-screen computers were often used as self-service devices for consumers and had a more utilitarian purpose and look.  Razorfish’s 2013 Annual Outlook Report states that early kiosks failed to take off in the retail environment because the experience wasn’t robust enough (Hull, 2012). Keys to developing successful interactive displays will be discussed in further detail in the Findings section.

IV.  Audience

The Whole Foods Brand aims to provide a premium shopping experience to an audience that is health conscious, socially conscious, environmentally conscious.
Whole Foods Market ranks third on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the top 25 Green Power Partners, donates 5% of their overall yearly profits to charitable causes, and local stores hold 5% days, four times a year, where they donate 5% of that day’s net sales to local or regional or non-profits or educational organizations.   They started two foundations in 2005—The Animal Compassion Foundation, which strives to insure animals are humanely treated in their products, and the Whole Planet Foundation, which aims to combat poverty in rural communities via micro-lending (May, 2011).
The Whole Foods Customer
The average Whole Foods customer are working parents between the ages of 30 and 50 (mostly women), have college degrees, earn mid to high level incomes, are health and fitness conscious, concerned with environmental and sustainability issues, live in cities or suburban areas, and are culturally diverse (May, 2011).
Medley reports that when traditional storytelling signage is put in the stores alongside the products there is consistent bump in sales after a story about a local product is released, leading Whole Foods to the conclusion that knowing the person, and the story, behind a product creates an emotional connection leading to increased sales and brand loyalty.
While most marketing campaigns are located online, Medley feels customers are best engaged within the actual store environment:
     “Our first line of fire is in the store—right alongside the products.  I feel very strongly that while we do have an online audience, we have this  incredibly loyal customer base, right here in our store, so if we can reach them with the content, I feel like that’s where our priority should be.”
Here are a few current examples of how Whole Foods is using video in the retail store to educate consumers about the people behind their food and the sustainable practices behind their products:
“In Greensboro, you can walk into our seafood department and there’s an iPad installed featuring stories about all of the seafood resourcing.  So you watch a video about the guy who fishes off the coast of North Carolina, catching wild-caught stuff, or the farmed catfish we get out of eastern North Carolina, or the farmed redfish we get out of a regional peninsula, etc.   We opened a huge store in Charlotte six months ago and installed a video wall behind the meat department—it’s like 6 feet wide.  So you have these people cutting your local lamb, and then behind them they’ll be these little video vignettes about the farmers that raised the meat.”
The iPad in the seafood department, it turns out, seemed to be “a great babysitter for children as their parents were making decisions about what to buy.”  The jury is still out on the large video displays.  It’s still very much, she says, in the experimental phase:
“We started out putting all of our video stories online. So I’m working really hard—and have been for four years now—to try and get those video stories in our store.  It’s difficult because our customers aren’t coming here to be entertained by videos, or even be educated by videos.  People aren’t accustomed to watching videos in a retail environment in the United States.  So we’ve been doing a lot of experimenting.  Every time we open a new store, which we’ve been doing a lot of lately, we feature video in a different way—kind of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”

V. Cultural, Social, and Economic Factors:  Consumer Culture is Changing with the Digital Age

Consumers are more environmentally and socially conscious than ever
Despite the economic downtown in 2008, Whole Foods experienced a 50% in sales of organic products between 2007 and 2011, and a 100% increase in fair trade products during that same time period, indicating a willingness to pay more for a product if it is a healthier, ethical and more sustainable choice (May, 2011). Deloitte’s research (2011) confirms this general trend:
              “Sustainability agenda must drive commercial performance. 
             60% of consumers rated environmental impact as more important
              than a brand name and 22% of consumers will actively spend more
              to buy green.”
Medley feels this trend to purchase socially and environmentally conscious products necessitates a storytelling element to products to effectively educate consumers:
“These days food is a fairly anonymous thing.  You buy the products and you know the brands but you don’t know the people behind the products or brands.  I think we’re sort of clawing our way back toward that.  I think we want to build a community around our purchases, around our lifestyles.  We want to know who we’re doing business with.  Take a place like Whole Foods.  It’s hard to put a face with that brand.   And maybe we’ve decided that it’s more important to put a farmer’s face to that brand.  It started when Whole Foods began focusing on local products.  So let’s talk about that for a minute.  Because the economics of that suck.  It’s very expensive for us to be buying beef from three small farmers in North Carolina rather than one huge cattle farmer, who might be organic, in Colorado.  The economics, some would argue, are not in our favor.  I would argue that because our customers are prioritizing this (buying local) and willing to pay more for it, that balances out the economics of it.  But in order to get there, you have to be able to explain to the customer why this product from Yanceyville NC cost more than the product from Colorado.   And you do that by way of storytelling.”
Telling the stories behind local farms, farmers, and sustainability practices enabled Whole Foods to address their customer concerns about healthy choices and the environment while also providing greater transparency of information promoting greater trust and brand loyalty.  Medley doesn’t believe that video stories need to be all throughout the store, however.  For example, she feels traditional signage in the produce department is a better choice—large photos of the farmers, spare informative text.  The more complex the story, she says, the more complex method is needed to communicate it:
            “The story about an organic tomato is a lot less complex than a story about organic beef.  Similarly our meat is a lot more expensive than the meat at the Food Lion.  And the reasons for that are more complex.  So we tend to do a lot more videos about meat and seafood.  Because it’s a harder story to tell. “
Increased use of in-store video signage to engage customers
Many large companies (Wal-Mart, Sephora, Clinique, Crate & Barrel, Bath & Body Works,  Levi’s, JCPenny’s, Bloomingdale’s, just to name a few) are beginning to use large in-store video signage to utilize the “Wow Factor” this sort of technology inspires, as well as the educational and customization interaction they afford.  According to Razorfish’s annual report (2012) , immersive digital experiences have a 53 percent higher attraction rate over traditional digital signage.   SapientNitro reports that digital experiences can lead to an 11 percent increase in profits and a 20 percent increase in accessory sales.  Sports stores are offering interactive displays that allow customers to customize the color and design of their shoes.   Levi’s jeans have an interactive “Denim Bar” digital display that allows customers to see all of their different jean options in a touchscreen format, rather than rifling through stacks or racks of jeans.  Department stores like Bloomingdales have huge video panels on their walls that aren’t interactive, but nonetheless provide a stunning visual experience of the brand.  Whole Foods Market in Canada partnered with Planet-Tek Systems, a provider of digital signage solutions in 2008, creating various stations (the “Produce Station”, “Ecological Station”, etc.) within the store with an aim to increase point-of-purchases,  provide customers with product information and lifestyle ideas, and provide metrics for each digital station. 
The role of the brick-and-mortar store is shifting
Consumers are purchasing more products online than ever before and the effects are being felt in the retail environment (Deloitte, 2011).   However, retail is still alive and well, and the retail store still plays an important role for customers.   Stores have many advantages that consumers can’t get online—the tactile benefit of being able to touch and feel before purchase.  In a grocery store, this touch-taste-see element is even more relevant.  SapientNitro’s 2013 annual report states:
“Quite simply, sales conversion is much higher in the retail store than anywhere else.  It also offers unique advantages:  immersion, direct support of sales associates, immediacy and focus, social elements and the opportunity for fun.  It makes sense to invest in the channel that represents more than 90% of most retailers’ sales (even as e-commerce continues to grow.)” (Sayers, 2012).
Retail stores must consider how to capitalize on these benefits while at the same time integrating the advantages of the digital, multichannel world in their physical environments.  As Jeff Jarvis states in his influential book What Would Google Do?, “All analog experiences will be reconceived in a digital world.”  Jarvis feels companies can find inspiration in Google’s success and in the challenge to “grasp new opportunities, to rethink, reimagine, and reinvent” analog experiences (Jarvis, 2009).  Experts in marketing research are in the beginning stages of reimagining the retail store.  Many stores are using technology to communicate the brand to the consumer.  There is a lot of buzz around using the physical space of the store to create an “immersive experience” for the customer. We’ll look more closely at the details of what that looks like for a company such as Whole Foods in the Findings section. 

VI. Findings and Take-a-Ways/Recommendations

One of the biggest obstacles a grocery store faces in using video technology is the undesirable element of distraction.  Unlike shopping for clothes, furniture or electronics where casual browsing is the norm, grocery shopping is a more utilitarian activity.  Customers usually come in with a list of things to check off, often rushed, with a eye towards getting in and out of the store, and back home to get food on the table.  
In order to capture attention in this environment, the retail store needs to provide customers with an experience they couldn’t have on their other devices (such as a smartphone, laptop or tablet), and enhances rather than detracts from their shopping experience (Sayers, 2012).  In the case of Whole Foods, the retail store should provide a values-centered experience that focuses on education about products and lifestyle, a sense of community, and a sense of inspiration that the customer is helping to make the world a better place by purchasing their products. 
Assessing the available research, these are my recommendations:
·      Video content should be relevant to the brand (Legorburu, 2013).  In Whole Foods case, it should highlight environmental and socially conscious efforts and showcase the ways in which Whole Foods is placing people and planet on the same level of importance as profits.  Whole Foods is already doing a good job of this.
·      Utilize “The Hero” mythology outlined by Joseph Campbell (Campbell, 1949).  Whole Foods is trying to improve the world, and the customers need to feel they are a part of that process.  Video content should inspire a sense of possibility in what customers feel is possible in their own lives.  Jonah Sachs writes, “Each of us is a hero in our own personal myth.  So many of the stories that have really stuck, that have shaped culture, are about one thing:  people reaching for their highest potential and struggling to create a better world.” (Sachs, 2012).  Whole Foods is in an excellent position to capitalize on this particular storyline.
·      Take precautions that storytelling video content isn’t overly long.  In a report entitled “Responding to Digital Innovation in Grocery Shopping—Guidance for 2012”, Bill Bishop writes, “ with communication there’s a delicate balance between adding value and overdoing it to the point of being irritating.”
·      Because customers are on the move and distracted, the grocery store isn’t an ideal place for a linear narrative that has a beginning and an end, it’s better to focus on visual “moments” that indicate a story, creating an experience with the video footage (Legorburu, 2013).  For this reason, Medley is beginning to experiment with using 8-second video “moments”, footage from local farms the store does business with.  It gives the feeling of connection with the producers of the food without all the details they don’t have time to listen to in the store.  Fuller stories are available online.
·      Retail store experiences should help to connect the dots between the brand and the daily lives of consumers in meaningful ways.  More planning and resources should be put into thoughtfully designing the intention of the experience over the technology (Hull, 2012). 
·      Retail store video content should “surprise, inform, and delight” while combining “insightful perspectives on human moments to create relevant ways to connect.” (Legorburu, 2013). 
·      Retail stores should be utilized to create community.  Jeff Jarvis writes, “Perhaps a store, like a restaurant, can become a community built around particular needs, tastes or passions.”  Whole Foods customers are a health-conscious, yet gourmet foodie crowd with an environmental and socially conscious slant.  Community activities should aim to connect the technology to the customers in meaningful ways.  For example, customers could meet the farmers whose stories they see on the video signage; they could ask the farmers questions, and get answers.  They could take a cooking class from a celebrity chef that is broadcasted via the big screen.  Jarvis writes, “Your store’s salvation is it’s customers.  Can you build a ball field where they want to play?  Turn the store inside out and build it around the people more than the products.  Your customers are your brand.  Your company is the company it keeps.”  (Jarvis, 2009).
·      Embrace technology, but don’t lose the human voice.  Cluetrain Manifesto authors write “markets are conversations” and should be delivered in a human voice, a voice which is “typically open, natural, and uncontrived”. 
·      Clutetrain Manifesto authors on building community:  “Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.”
·      Communication between companies and consumers should be a two-way street.  Whole Foods should ask their customers what sorts of stories they want to hear, and better yet, how their customers can be a part of the story.
·      The fact that children were engrossed with the iPad technology in Whole Foods seafood department was seen as a failure, but perhaps it could indicate that more technology should be aimed towards kids within the store.  It could be beneficial for kids to learn about healthy eating habits and sustainable products.  Often it is kids that urge their parents to buy certain products, and Whole Foods could possibly capitalize on that, customizing their content specifically for children.


Bishop, B. (2012).  Responding to Digital Innovation in Grocery Shopping:  Guidance for 2012.  http://www.brickmeetsclick.com/stuff/contentmgr/files/0/3f37fb3f56d7dfa5e61ed38b97481075/pdf/bmc_2012_guidance_for_grocery.pdf (page 9)

Boudway, I. (2006).  We Are What We Eat. http://www.salon.com/2006/04/08/pollan_2/

Campbell, J. (1949).  The hero with a thousand faces.  New York:  Pantheon Books.

Deloitte, (2011). The Store of the Future:  the new role of the store in a multichannel       environment.  Thought Leadership Series, pg. 5.

Hull, J. (2012).  Controlling the Retail Environment Through Digital Brand Immersion.  Razorfish Outlook Report, vol. 10.

Jarvis, J. (2009). What Would Google Do?  Reverse-Engineering the Fastest-Growing Company in the History of the World. (Pages 160-161).

Legorburu, G. (2013).  Storyscaping:  Building Worlds, Not Ads.  SapientNitro.  Insights 2013 Annual Report.

Levine, R., Locke, C., Searls, D., Weinberger, D. (2000).  The Cluetrain Manifesto:  The End of Business as Usual. 

Mackey, J. (2006).  An Open Letter to Michael Pollan.  http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/john-mackeys-blog/open-letter-michael%C2%A0pollan

May, S. (2011). Whole Foods Market:  A brand analysis.  http://www.slideshare.net/SebastianMay/whole-foods-market-a-brand-analysis

Medley, K. (2013, April 1). Personal interview.

Sachs, . (2012).  Winning the Story Wars:  Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future.  (Page 5).

Sayers, C. (2012).  Retail Goes Rogue:  How Digital Convergence Will Revitalize the In-Store Experience.  SapientNitro, 2013 Annual Insights Report.

Simmons, A. (2001).  The Story Factor:  Inspiration, influence, and Persuasion through the art of storytelling.  New York:  Basic Books. 

(2008).  Whole Foods Canada Launching Digital Signage Stations.  http://www.retailcustomerexperience.com/article/3766/Whole-Foods-Canada-launching-digital-signage-stations
Visual Examples of Digital Signage: