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Eugene, Oregon, Inc.

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The vested interests that want WFM in Eugene point to the thriving Pearl District in Portland as having been transformed by the WFM recently established there. This giant chain store would, the vested interests argue, swoop into Eugene and “rescue” us as well. There are a few problems with this argument. First, Portland is a large city with urban sensibilities that aren’t present in Eugene. Second, the Pearl District had already attracted new independent shops and restaurants and gentrification was already happening by the time WFM showed up. Third, it seems unlikely that people would stroll around town before grocery shopping and after words the food needs to be taken home to the fridge and freezer.

As a large “destination” supermarket, Whole Foods Market will need to draw customers from all over town – thus encouraging more driving. Our, selection of neighborhood natural foods stores, especially our current downtown store, the Kiva, would be threatened with extinction. The loss of neighborhood goods and services contributes not only to the environmental problem of necessitating more driving, but also lessens the degree to which we can connect with our neighbors on a regular basis.

Some people may think Whole Foods Market is a good match for Eugene because, thanks to a well-funded public relations program, they have developed a reputation for being a “progressive,” “green,” “socially conscious,” “community-friendly” business. Yet, while it may be true that WFM uses progressive management techniques, projects a hip image and has a casually dressed, Libertarian vegetarian C.E.O., in the final analysis Whole Foods Market is essentially a powerful chain bent on conquering the world of natural foods retailing. They do this not only by brilliant self-promotion, but also by operating as efficiently as possible. They centralize as many corporate functions as possible, from management and advertising, to accounting and legal departments. They are big enough to negotiate powerfully with suppliers, consolidate warehousing and to even purchase farms and manufacturers so that they can control price and availability to other stores. They buy out, put out, or marginalize the competition. They are so large and so profitable that a particular outlet can lose money for years and thus outlast any independent local competitors.

Whole Foods Market wants to come to Eugene because we already have a thriving natural foods customer base served by six independent neighborhood stores. As has consistently been their strategy from the beginning, WFM feeds on the customer base of local stores- thus their expansion strategy is predatory. The idea that they are coming to Eugene to rescue and revitalize downtown is simply their public relations people working with local vested interests to sell the city on the idea that they deserve special treatment. Whole Foods Market is a corporation the intrinsic mission of which is to maximize profits to shareholders. What they do and say must ultimately serve that mission.

The following list attempts to summarize some of the reasons we should not encourage or facilitate WFM incursion into Eugene:

  1. WFM’s size, buying power and centralized management have the six independent local stores at a major competitive disadvantage.

  2. Chain stores lend uniformity to a town. When every town has its Borders Books, Home Depot, Staples, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Macdonald’s, and Papa John’s Pizza, the character, personality and sense of place will be lost.

  3. Product selection becomes limited and prices usually rise when one corporation monopolizes the market place or category of goods

  4. Money leaves the community for corporate headquarters and into the pockets of the stockholders. Outside interests vested in their own welfare have less regard for our community than their own cash flow.

  5. Jobs are lost when large chain retailers displace smaller stores, or force
    them to downsize

  6. Large chains are able to support losses in some stores because of the big profits in their other stores. Thus chain stores can wait out the demise of the local independents. This isn’t genuine competition – it is the kind of thing from which that anti-trust laws used to protect us, before the corporations lobbied them out of existence in the name of so-called “free enterprise,” now known as survival of the most powerful.

  7. The “culture” of the chain store isn’t native to the particular community, so the uniqueness of individual towns is lost. Each community becomes just another mall for chain stores and formula restaurants.

  8. As a “destination” rather than a neighborhood store, Whole Foods Market would encourage driving further to buy groceries.

  9. Because of its large size WFM can’t offer the intimate, homey shopping experience that smaller local stores can provide.

  10. Eugene is already being well served by the six neighborhood natural foods stores as well as by the Eugene-based PC Market of Choice chain. We don’t need a chain natural foods store that would dominate or eliminate local businesses.

Americans seem to have become resigned to the apparently inevitable dissolution of town centers, independent small businesses and neighborhood grocery stores. So when the world’s largest natural foods retailer proposes an enormous grocery on the edge of downtown Eugene, hardly anyone blinks. Our situation may be likened to the parable, which environmentalists often relate, of the frog in hot water. If you place a frog in a pan of boiling water, it will immediately jump out and save itself. But if you place a frog in a pan of cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog doesn’t react to the gradual change and dies. Will we one day hear ourselves reminisce about the good old days when there were quaint independent local bookstores, shoe stores, florists, camera shops, coffee shops, cafes, and natural foods stores that were fun, familiar, cozy places where we would socialize with neighbors and the staff? These small interactions in these unique local businesses give us a sense of connectedness, belonging and sense of place that cannot be found in chains stores.

Let us do what we can to retain Eugene’s character, integrity and sense of place by considering the social, cultural and environmental as well as the economic effects of new developments. Please share your views on this topic with city officials.