Monday, January 12, 2009

Retail Memo - Breaking News: Whole Foods Press Conference Tomorrow; Objective: Get Retailers to Comply With Subpoena; Need: Urgent

Reaching Out: FTC v. Whole Foods Market - and the Subpoenas

Whole Foods Market, Inc. will hold a press conference tomorrow (Tuesday, January 13) at 12 pm Eastern time, at which company executives will ask the nearly half of the 94 U.S. natural foods retailers it has subpoenaed for their confidential sales and related information to submit the trade secrets to its legal council in order to assist Whole Foods in its legal battle against the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Tomorrow's press conference, during which Whole Foods plans to offer verbal assurances to the subpoenaed natural foods retailers that their trade secrets will not be viewed by Whole Foods Market, Inc. employees, just members of its legal team, comes on the heels of a letter sent to the FTC today by company CEO John Mackey, in which he asks the members of the regulatory agency to offer assurances that the subpoena order, which states that only members of the FTC and Whole Foods' legal council can view the trade secrets, be enforced. The subpoena order states that if the information is viewed by other than authorized parties those doing so could be subject to a contempt of court violation.

Mackey also has sent a letter to the subpoenaed natural products retailers asking them to comply with the subpoena. In the letter he offers reasons for them to do so, along with offering assurances that the information will not be viewed by Whole Foods Market, Inc. employees.

Both Whole Foods and the FTC has previously assured the subpoenaed natural foods retailers that only the Whole Foods Market, Inc. legal team and FTC members and staffers are allowed to view the contents of the sales, financial and related trade secrets contained in the information submitted per the subpoena, according to its legal guidelines. However, despite those legal and verbal assurances, nearly half of the 94 natural products retailers located in 29 U.S. markets have not complied with the subpoena. The deadline for them to do so was November 4, 2008.

Whole Foods' executive vice president Jim Sud will do the briefing at tomorrow's press conference for the natural foods grocer. [we've suggested it would be a good idea for John Mackey to take a back seat in such public instances and instead have someone like co-president Walter Robb, or in this case Sud, handle the heavy lifting because there is bad blood between members of the FTC and Mackey. Perhaps Whole Foods and John Mackey agree with NSFM?] The lead outside legal counsel for Whole Foods, Lanny Davis of the Washington, D.C. office of the Orrick law firm, will participate in the press conference to address legal issues involving the subpoenas.

Whole Foods badly needs the trade secret data from the 94 competitors in those 29 U.S. markets in order to prove it isn't a monopolist in what the FTC calls the premium natural and organic retailing segment. The FTC says it is, and that argument forms the basis of the regulatory agency's continued objection to a combined Whole Foods-Wild Oats to this day, more than 18 months since the merger was completed.

The purpose of tomorrow's press conference is to ask the subpoenaed retailer's to help Whole Foods in its battle against the FTC in part for "the sake of the industry." The natural foods chain says its hand was forced by the FTC, which is why it had to subpoena the trade secrets from its competitors.

As we've been writing about extensively, one of those subpoenaed natural foods retailers, Portland, Oregon-based New Seasons Market, publicly fought the subpoena, submitting a legal brief to the FTC asking it to strike the subpoena down. An FTC Administrative Law Judge ruled in favor of Whole Foods last month and gave New Seasons until December 29, 2008 to comply with the subpoena and submit its sales information, financial data, strategic marketing plans and other trade secrets.

As we reported in this piece [Retail Memo - Breaking News: New Seasons Market Doesn't Turn Over Trade Secrets to Whole Foods Market Despite Deadline to Do So Being Today] on December 29, 2008, New Seasons did not comply with the deadline given to it by the FTC Administrative Law Judge. In addition, according to New Seasons Market CEO Brian Rohter, the nine-store Portland natural foods grocer has not yet turned over any information to Whole Foods per the subpoena.

According to our sources, as of today only about 55 of the 94 natural foods retailers have complied with the subpoena and submitted information to Whole Foods Market, Inc. Additionally, as we've previously reported, many of the retailers that have complied with the have self-edited the information demanded, excluding types of information they feared could be used against them in a competitive way.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo (NSFM) has learned that one of the natural foods retailers that did just that is the fast-growing Sunflower Farmers Market chain, which was founded by and is headed by former Wild Oats founder Michael Gilliland. Gilliland left Wild Oats a considerable time before the Whole Foods acquisition.

According to our sources, Sunflower Farmers Market, as did a number of the other subpoenaed natural products retailers, omitted some trade secret information because of a lack of security about it not being read by Whole Foods Market, Inc. employees, which is a reasonable fear despite the assurances to the contrary.

Whole Foods has been talking privately with a number of the retailers who have yet to comply with the subpoena, including holding talks with New Seasons Market CEO Rohter and his legal counsel for the last couple weeks, attempting to assure them that the trade secret information will be kept confidential, along with trying to devise ways, including some possible compromises, to get these retailers to submit the information to Whole Foods' legal counsel, NSFM has learned.

Whole Foods may offer up some of those compromises at tomorrow's press conference as a way to encourage the retailers to comply with the subpoena.

Whole Foods Market's legal counsel needs the information right now as its needs to prepare for the April, 2009 administrative trail before an FTC Administrative Law Judge. With only about half of the information in, and incomplete at that, Whole Foods' lawyers don't currently have near enough data to use in defending the FTC's anti-competitive argument against it.

We will be covering tomorrow's press conference. Stay tuned for our report tomorrow.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo (NSFM) Linkage: FTC v. Whole Foods:

January 12, 2008: Retail Memo: FTC Asks Judge to Force Whole Foods to Put Most of the Wild Oats' Genie Back in the Bottle Pending A Resolution of its Merger Challenge....

December 29, 2008: Retail Memo - Breaking News: New Seasons Market Doesn't Turn Over Trade Secrets to Whole Foods Market Despite Deadline to Do So Being Today....December 29, 2008: Independent Grocer Memo: Natural-Organic, Local, Fresh and Premium Keys to Pacific Northwest USA's Haggen Foods; Now Adding Value....December 28, 2008: Retail Memo: Web Site and Blog-Driven Viral Boycott of Whole Foods Market Stores in Portland, Oregon Region Going On; Could it Intensify?....December 28, 2008: Retail Memo: Tomorrow Deadline For Portland, Oregon's New Seasons Market to Turn Over Trade Secrets to Whole Foods Market's Legal Counsel....

December 24, 2008: Christmas Eve Memo 2008: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' - FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc. Version....December 24, 2008: Independent Grocer Memo: From Mrs. Gooch's to the Auto Body Business, Then Back to Retail, Chris Kysar is On A Healthy Organic Foods Retailing Roll....December 24, 2008: Retail Memo: It's 'Deja Vu All Over Again' - Judge Paul Friedman to Whole Foods Market, FTC: 'What's My Role Here?'....December 23, 2008: Retail Memo: FTC Postpones Scheduled February 16 Administrative Hearing on Whole Foods-Wild Oats Deal Break-Up Until April 6, 2009....

December 23, 2008: Independent Grocer Memo: National Grocers' Association Asks President-Elect Obama to Look Out For Independent Grocers When He takes Office in January....December 22, 2008: Retail Memo: Only Slightly More Than Half the 93 Natural Foods Retailers Issued Subpoenas By Whole Foods in its Case against the FTC Have Complied.... December 22, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods Market Wants to Depose and Obtain Internal E-Mails From FTC Commissioner, Suggesting Possible Conflict of Interest Situation....December 22, 2008: Retail Memo: At Hearing Today Judge Tells FTC to Provide Road Map of How Whole Foods Could Take About Merged Companies Should Ruling Go In its Favor....

December 19, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods' Lobbying Effort Baring More Fruit - House Committee Leaders Send Letter to FTC Chair Similar to One Sent By Senate Leaders....December 18, 2008: Retail Memo: 'This Isn't Over Yet' - New Seasons Market CEO On Judge's Decision the Natural Gorcer Must Turn Over Trade Secrets to Whole Foods Market.... December 18, 2008: Retail Memo: The 'Whole Primary Source Scoop' -- FTC and U.S. Federal Court Documents on the FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc. Case....December 17, 2008: Breaking News: Judge Orders New Seasons Market to Comply With Whole Foods' Subpoena and Submit Sales Data, Financial Records and Other Trade Secrets....

December 16, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Boulder, CO...And the Rocky Mountain News' Editorial Take On FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc....December, 15, 2008: Retail Memo: Eight Members of U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Send Letter to FTC Chairman Regarding FTC's Legal Case Against Wild Oats' Acquisition....December, 13, 2008: Retail Memo - Analysis & Commentary: More On FTC v. Whole Foods Market, Inc. and Whole Foods Market, Inc. v. FTC....December 9, 2008: Organics Category Memo: Wither Organics? Organic Food & Grocery Category Sales Down; But Double-Digit Growth Still Likley With Mass Market Lift....

December 9, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods Markets' 'Whole Legal Paycheck:' Three Top Washington, D.C. Law Firms Teaming Up On The Natural Grocery Chain's FTC Lawsuit....December 9, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey and Team Launch First Aggressive Attack Against the FTC's Legal Case at Press Conference This Morning....December 8, 2008: Retail Memo: Mr. Mackey (and the Whole Foods Market Troops) Goes to Washington....December 8, 2008: Retail Memo: Breaking News - Whole Foods Market, Inc. Files Lawsuit Against the FTC; Argues the Regulator Violated the Company's Due Process Rights....

December 7, 2008: Retail Memo: New Seasons Market CEO Brian Rohter and Whole Foods Market Co-President Walter Robb Discuss and Debate the Subpoena Issue Online....December 7, 2008: Retail Memo: New Seasons Market CEO Brian Rohter Speaks Out Again Today on the Whole Foods Market, Inc. Subpoena of His Company's Data....December 7, 2008:Retail Memo: Whole Foods Market Retains Top Washington D.C. lawyers and Politically-Connected Lobbyists to Plead its Case Against the FTC....

December 6, 2008: Retail Memo: Fast-Growing and Scrappy Sunflower Farmers Market Ventures Deep in the Heart of (Whole Foods Country) Texas....December 6, 2008: Retail Memo: Fast-Growing NF Chain Sunflower Farmers Market Responds to Whole Foods Market, Inc. Subpoena For Sales, Financial and Related Information....December 3, 2008: Retail Memo: More on the Whole Foods Market-New Seasons Market Subpoena Issue; FTC Holding Firm For February, 2009 Hearing....December 2, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods Market, Inc. Closes $425 Sale of Stock to Private Equity Firm; Adds Members of the Firm to its Board of Directors....

December 2, 2008: Retail Memo: Portland, Oregon-Based New Seasons Market CEO Brian Rohter Responds to Whole Foods Market's Paige Brady....December 2, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods' Paige Brady Responds to Yesterday's New Seasons Market Piece; Lots of E-Mails; Issue Heats Up On the New Seasons Market Blog....December 1, 2008: Retail Memo: Whole Foods Wants A Court-Mandated Financial Records Dump from Portland-based New Seasons Market; it Says For its Battle Against the FTC.

FTC v. Whole Foods - Linkage from the Natural~Specialty Foods Memo archives:

Click here, here and here for stories about the FTC-Whole Foods issue from our archives, including pieces about mass market and natural foods class of trade retail competitors.

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