Friday, February 8, 2008

Food & Politics Memo: Is Barack Obama the Whole Foods Market Candidate, and Hillary Clinton the Warehouse-Store Commodity Version?

We often make the analogy between food retailing (and retailing in general) and politics. In fact, that's one reason we have a memo called 'Food & Politics Memo' here on the blog. We aren't alone in that belief: Political strategists even differentiate between what they call retail politics--campaigning one-on-one with voters--and wholesale politics--using the mass media, running TV ads and the like.

There's also lots of merchandizing in politics like in retailing. The difference is in politics the candidate is what's being merchandised rather than products. There's "retail theatre" and "political theatre." And like the buyer/seller relationship in food retailing, politics requires lots of negotiation and deal-making as well.

New York Times columnist David Brooks (Aka Dr. Retail, pictured above at left) agrees with our retailing/politics analogy. He even devoted his entire Times' column today to making the analogy camparison as it relates to the Democratic Presidential Primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In his column, "Questions for Dr. Retail," Brooks uses a Q&A format between himself and Dr. Retail, the mythical sage of the retail world, to discuss Clinton, Obama and their race for the Democratic party Presidential nomination.

Using a food retailing analogy, Brooks says there are commodity retailers--like Safeway (maybe no Lifestyle format stores in his Washington, D.C. neighborhood)--and experience providers that deliver a sensation to shoppers, like Whole Foods Market. He then carries that analogy to the candidates: Clinton is a commodity candidate he says. She caters to the less-educated, less-pretentious consumer. (Note to Brooks: Safeway is upscaling; Wal-Mart might be a better choice for the analogy.)

Obama, on the other hand, is the experience provider (Whole Foods). He attracts the educated consumer. (In polls he leads Clinton by 22 points among people with college degrees.) We aren't sure if Brooks is aware of it--or if our readers are--but Whole Foods Market's number one criteria for locating a grocery store in a neighborhood is the percentage (the higher the better) of residents who have college degrees.

Brooks goes on in his column to compare Clinton and Obama--the commodity candidate vs. the experience provider--on a number of other retail industry-oriented attributes and themes. It's a must-read for retailers, political junkies and citizens alike.

We happen to think Brooks is right on--and all the primary exit polls and telephone survey polls thus far bare it out--in terms of how he is characterizing the two candidates--or at least how each candidate is positioning themselves for the race.

We even recall a comment Barack Obama made a month or so ago. In talking aboout the soaring cost of food at the grocery store, Obama said in a speech to a crown, "Have you seen how high the price of arugala is at Whole Foods?" That's what we call "experience-provider" retail positioning.

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