Thursday, March 12, 2009

Retail Memo: Whole Foods Market is Selling Brand 'Wild Oats'- We Offer Three Retailers We Suggest Could Benefit From Buying the Brand

Whole Foods Market, Inc. - FTC Settlement Agreement: Post-Mortem Analysis

As we reported in this piece [Daily Memo: It's A Done Deal: Whole Foods Market and the FTC Reach A Settlement Agreement On Wild Oats' Acquisition Antitrust Challenge] on March 6, 2009, the settlement agreement reached between Whole Foods Market, Inc. and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the FTC's antitrust legal challenge to Whole Foods' 2007 acquisition of Wild Oats Markets, Inc. included three elements or terms. Those terms are:

>The selling of 13 (12 former Wild Oats' units, one existing Whole Food's unit) stores currently being operated by Whole Foods Market, Inc.;

>The selling of 19 closed stores; 10 closed by Wild Oats before the acquisition and nine closed by Whole Foods Market, Inc. post-acquisition and;

>The selling by Whole Foods Market, Inc. of the "Wild Oats" brand and all related intellectual property.

As part of the settlement agreement, a third-party receiver is handling the sale of the 32 stores and the "Wild Oats" brand and intellectual property.

It is the third element of the settlement agreement -- the selling of the brand -- that we focus on in this piece today.

It's our analysis that having to sell the brand is something that hurts Whole Foods Market not at all.

In fact, since acquiring Wild Oats Markets, Inc. in 2007, Whole Foods' has done pretty much all buried the brand by design and strategy. Therefore, we see no downside -- nor do we believe Whole Foods Market, Inc. does -- in the natural grocery chain's selling of the "Wild Oats" brand.
If Whole Foods Market gets a decent price for the brand and related intellectual property, it's our analysis and opinion that the retailer probably will view that aspect of the settlement deal as pure blue sky. [We don't think the selling of the stores hurts Whole Foods in anyway either, as we mentioned in our March 6 story. It's all blue sky for Whole Foods.]

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo (NSFM) does see some value in the "Wild Oats" brand -- not particularly to Whole Foods Market, especially at this point in time since the natural grocery chain already made a strategic decision not to use the brand long before the FTC settlement requirement to sell it -- but to a handful of other retailers.

In this vein, we offer an analysis below of three very different retail chains -- natural foods grocery chain Sunflower Farmers Market, mega-retailer Wal-Mart, and online retailer -- that could benefit from buying and using the Wild Oats brand.

Sunflower Farmers Market

The fast-growing Boulder, Colorado-based natural foods chain, which was founded by and is run by Mike Gilliland (CEO), who also founded Wild Oats in 1984 in Boulder, might want to take a look at buying the "Wild Oats" brand from Whole Foods Market, Inc.

This is not just because of the nostalgic fact that Gilliland founded and named the grocery chain Wild Oats, although that aspect has a heart warming aspect to it, but rather because the brand name could offer some merchandising and marketing advantages to Sunflower Farmers Market.

The Texas connection: First, probably because an existing health food store in Texas has the name "Sunflower," Sunflower Farmers Market has chosen to name its stores in the Longhorn state "Newflower." Might it not be interesting if Sunflower Farmers Market buys the "Wild Oats" brand from Whole Foods and then changes the name of those Texas stores to "Wild Oats," using the old Wild Oats logo (which is attractive) and related intellectual and brand properties?

We think doing so could offer benefits to Sunflower in its Texas stores. The "Wild Oats" brand name still has brand equity, in our analysis, particularly among primary natural foods shoppers, and particularly in the Western U.S.

It would also be an ironic development were this to happen since Whole Foods Market is based in Texas. Sunflower just opened its first "Netflower" store in Austin, where Whole Foods' corporate headquarters is located, a couple weeks ago.

Additionally, brand "Wild Oats" might also offer Sunflower Farmers Market some additional options and benefits.

For example, the natural grocer could use "Wild Oats" as a private label brand. Wild Oats Markets, Inc. had a full line of natural and organic products under the brand, even selling the brand and line at Kroger stores throughout the U.S. for a few years, in addition to in the Wild Oats Market stores.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. has now sold off most of the "Wild Oats" brand items, replacing them in the converted former Wild Oats Market banner stores with Whole Foods Market store brands. But the recipes, graphic design for the labels and all of the other intellectual and material property still exists for the brand's product line. All Sunflower, or any other grocer, need do if they acquire the brand is to decide what products they want to put under it and hire vendors to produce the products.

Perhaps brand "Wild Oats" would make a good premium natural products brand for Sunflower Farmers Market, featuring either just organic or both natural and organic items, for example.

Further, owning the brand would allow Sunflower Farmers Market and Gilliland to use it on any stores it desired at any time. For example, Perhaps as the chain grows it creates a second retail format, branding it "Wild Oats." We could see a higher-end format from Sunflower (after the recession), for example, that used the Wild Oats retail brand on it. This would fit with the positioning of the brand on products being of a more premium natural and/or organic nature, under that scenario.

Lastly, imagine the marketing-oriented public relations attention buying the "Wild Oats" brand would have for Sunflower Farmers Market and Mike Gilliland.

We can see the headlines now: (1) "Wild Oats' brand returns to founder." (2) Mike Gilliland sows his 'Wild Oats': plans Texas stores under the Wild Oats Market banner." (3) It's 'Back to the Future' for Sunflower Farmers Market founder and CEO Mike Gilliland, as he prepares to launch a new line of private label natural and organic products in the Sunflower stores under the 'Wild Oats' label."

This could be publicity no amount of money can buy, particularly timed with the launch of the rebranded "Newflower" stores under the Wild Oats' retail banner in Texas, or the launch of a new proprietary natural product line under the "Wild Oats" brand for Sunflower. Just some food for thought.

And, since the settlement with the FTC requires a third-party receiver to sell brand "Wild Oats," Whole Foods Market, Inc. can't veto a sale of the brand and its assets to Gilliland and Sunflower Farmers Market (or to any other competitor), should the natural grocer decide to acquire it.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

We go from small but fast-sprouting Sunflower Farmers Market to global giant Wal-Mart in this journey.

We think buying the "Wild Oats" brand from Whole Foods has some merit for Wal-Mart. For example, Wal-Mart brands its fast-growing line of natural and organic products under the "Sam's Choice" brand. While it's nice that this brand honors Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, it really has very little resonance in consumers' minds when it comes to natural or organic food. In fact, since Sam Walton was a very frugal man, we doubt he would have spent the extra money that natural and organic food and grocery items cost anyway.

Wal-Mart could use brand "Wild Oats" for private label brand natural-organic products in a few ways.

First, it could brand all of its natural and organic products under the brand, including changing existing "Sam's" items to brand "Wild Oats."

Second, it could create a two-tier brand system. "Sam's" would be used for lower price-point natural and organic items, "Wild Oats" for higher-end, premium natural-organic items.

Lastly, Wal-Mart could use the "Wild Oats" brand name strictly for organic food and grocery items, then use "Sam's" or something else for "natural" only.

We think Wal-Mart needs a better brand for natural-organic using one of the above three product scenarios

Wild Oats' is a good brand name, still has equity, and is for sale. Therefore, although we know this is way down on the list of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.'s priorities list, we think acquiring the brand from Whole Foods Market would offers a nice opportunity in the natural-organic products categories for Wal-Mart, which continues to move deeper into the categories, and will move much faster once again in the natural-organic private label and retailing spaces once the recession ends.

Wal-Mart also now operates four (soon to be five when it opens a new store in Peoria, Arizona later this year) of its small-format Marketside grocery and fresh foods stores. (Wal-Mart also has two Marketside stores under construction in San Diego County, California, with three more planned in California.) The 15,000 -to- 20,000 square foot markets feature a limited assortment of basic food and grocery items, including natural, organic and specialty items, fresh meats and produce, perishables and in-store prepared foods.

The Marketside stores are more upscale than any of Wal-Mart's other formats. A selection of natural and organic items in the stores under the "Wild Oats" brand could be a nice addition to the natural and organic item selection-segment in those stores for Wal-Mart.

In 2007 the online retailer started selling shelf-stable food, grocery, household item, health and body care and related packaged goods. Today the online mega-store's inventory in these respective categories is vast and extensive, including offering lots of natural, organic and specialty food and grocery items for sale.

Shoppers order the food and groceries online just as they do everything else that Amazon merchandises. The orders are then delivered to shoppers' homes via Federal Express, UPS or other basic delivery service.

In a little over two years, Amazon has gone from merely experimenting with selling food and groceries to actually selling a considerable volume of product, including a decent amount of natural and organic food and grocery products.

We think Amazon should take the logical next step in its progression as an online grocer and start offering its own brand products. Since the web retailer doesn't have the volume needed to really yet have a store brand everyday or discount grocery brand, we suggest a good place to start would be with a natural and organic products store brand.

Therefore, why not brand "Wild Oats"? The brand still has consumer awareness and equity. Everything is there to rapidly start producing whatever products are desired; all that's needed are vendors. And, the brand is for sale.

Amazon could create its own natural and organic food and grocery proprietary brand under the "Wild Oats" brand. It could start small, say with about 45-75 items in a half dozen -to- a dozen categories to start. We would suggest all the products be consumables and health and body care to start. Then it could go from there with the brand.

Amazon also could extend the brand "Wild Oats" across the numerous categories it sells products from. For example, how about "Wild Oats'" proprietary brand organic cotton clothing? What about body care, vitamins, supplements? How about a line of "green" cleaning products under the brand."

In other words, brand "Wild Oats" could allow Amazon to have a proprietary brand that it could use to create it's own "brand" in the numerous categories -- from food and drink to clothing and health and body care -- that avail themselves of a natural-organic products focus.

Amazon is without a doubt big enough to do this. We think it would be a very positive development for the online mega-retailer. It also, in our analysis, would help build better product brand equity for the online retailer. is a major player in natural products retailing across numerous categories. The Wild Oats brand could allow it to become a much bigger category player in many mainstream and niche natural and organic products segments, from consumables to clothing, and much more.

Conclusion: Brand 'Wild Oats' - will any retailers bite?

There are other retailers besides the three we offer that could benefit from acquiring the brand from Whole Foods Market, Inc. Most interesting to us will be if a competitor -- like Sunflower Farmers Market, Sprouts Farmers Market or Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage -- buys brand "Wild Oats" with the design of using it as the name for a chain of stores.

Or, if another format retailer, say Target or Wal-Mart, were to buy it with the idea of someday using "Wild Oats" for a chain of natural foods markets. We doubt this scenario -- but that doesn't make it any less interesting.

It's our analysis that the FTC hopes something like the first scenario above happens -- that some competitor of Whole Foods Market buys the brand and uses it to compete against Whole Foods.' That's the key reason the FTC required there be a third party receiver appointed to handle the sale of the brand and the store sales: It wanted to make sure that Whole Foods Market, Inc. couldn't veto the sale of brand "Wild Oats" or the sale of any of the stores on the block to a competitor.

It will be interesting to see if any retailers bite and make an offer to buy the brand. Readers: Which retailers do you think could benefit from buying brand "Wild Oats" from Whole Foods Market, Inc? Offer your idea(s) and opinion(s) by using the "comments" link below. Just click and type.

[Related posts: March 8, 2009: Retail Memo: The FTC-Whole Foods Market Settlement Agreement Looks Much Like Our January 'Blueprint-Template For A Settlement Deal' Proposal ... March 6, 2008: Retail Memo: The 'Whole Bibliography' - FTC v. Whole Foods Market Antitrust Case & Issue ... March 6, 2008: Daily Memo: It's A Done Deal: Whole Foods Market and the FTC Reach A Settlement Agreement On Wild Oats' Acquisition Antitrust Challenge ... March 5, 2008: Daily Memo: Whole Foods Market - FTC - Settlement Deal Watch - Countdown to March 6]

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Anonymous said...

Agree that it would be a good buy for Sunflower Farmers Market. Would be very interesting to use the Wild Oats banner in Texas. Sunflower could also use Wild Oats maybe for a department in the stores, like in-store natural cafe.

Alberto Vázquez said...

As a consumer, I believe that it is important to know if the quality of the private label is or not like that of the products of brand label. Personally, I think that it is not always the same and that, in any case, we don´t have enough information in order to make an effective choice.