Bush's war on Whole Foods.

Commentary about business and finance.
June 7 2007 6:33 PM

Bush's War on Whole Foods

The government's crazy effort to stop the organic chain from buying a competitor.

(Continued from Page 1)

It's hard to see how permitting Whole Foods to convert existing Wild Oats into Whole Foods outlets and perhaps close a few dozen redundant stores will deprive foodies of a unique retail experience. And experience is in the eye of the shopper. For some subset of foodies, Whole Foods and Wild Oats are simply too corporate and not sufficiently local—they're no better than Stop'n'Shop. These über-food snobs prefer co-ops and farmers markets.

I try not to take public policy personally. But it's hard not to in this case. In certain parts of the country, there are Whole Foods towns and non-Whole Foods towns. Snooty Greenwich, Conn., has a Whole Foods. But the more pedestrian, perfectly nice town in which I live, about a dozen miles up the highway, only has a Wild Oats—along with a Trader Joe's and a Balducci's and a twice-a-week farmers market, plus an artisanal chocolatier and a cheese shop. Oh, and a few good fish shops. But our Wild Oats is a forlorn place—it's clean but dim and generally empty. It has some nice produce but lacks the frisson of Balducci's or the bonhomie of the farmers market. Since turnover is low, the fish counter is populated by frowning, pallid specimens—not the gleaming, happy, exotic creatures I see at Whole Foods.

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For months, local foodies have been salivating at the prospect that Whole Foods would buy out the company and convert the Wild Oats into a Whole Foods. Fresh sardines, luscious tomatoes, and lovingly cured salamis were only a merger away. But not if the FTC has its way.

There's one final canard in the FTC's argument. The agency argues that if a merger were to go through, Whole Foods would be able to raise prices. But even with Wild Oats—and a gazillion other competitors—in the marketplace, Whole Foods has managed to do a pretty good job of doing that.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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