Changes at Whole Foods raise concerns among staff

Benjamin Romano
The Seattle Times

A new interactive touchscreen at Whole Foods Market checkout stands asks shoppers to rate their experience on a scale of one to five stars — just like they do in product reviews on Amazon’s online shopping site.

The ratings are not meant to evaluate individual employees, but their arrival caused anxiety for at least one Whole Foods checker, who said neither a training video nor management communications about the new technology covered how the ratings data would be used.

Combined with the recent revelation that Whole Foods is cutting health-insurance benefits for part-time employees — many of whom learned of the move through media reports rather than from managers — the lack of detail provided about the new ratings system raised questions about employee communications at a time when labor groups are trying to organize its workers.

A new interactive touch screen at Whole Foods Market checkout stands asks shoppers to rate their experience on a scale of one to five stars — just like they do in product reviews on Amazon's online shopping site. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The star ratings, solicited through touchscreens that began appearing in stores this summer, are an extension of the company’s means for soliciting feedback from customers on their experience shopping at Whole Foods broadly, and won’t be ascribed to individual employees, a company representative said. Ratings will not be used to make any compensation or scheduling decisions, the representative said.

That should allay concerns of the checker, working at a Whole Foods in California, who worried that too many one-star reviews under the new system could lead to a reduction in bonuses or hours — a more acute issue in light of the benefits cuts.

The part-timer, who asked not to be named while discussing concerns, and another Whole Foods employee in Seattle said they only learned of the benefit cuts, which take effect Jan. 1, from media reports — they were reported by Business Insider — and hadn’t received formal notification from the company.

The Seattle employee, who also requested anonymity to describe internal communications, said health insurance was her main reason for working at the company: “I think what is also distressing, is that I have not heard a word of this from my employer. My insurance will be taken away in 3 months and I have been given no notice that I will need to find an alternative!!”

A company representative said Whole Foods had intended to notify employees affected by the cuts in one-on-one conversations. Those employees “in good standing have the opportunity to move into one of the thousands of full-time roles,” making them eligible for the same health-care coverage at a lower cost. Moreover, the majority of the roughly 1,900 employees losing health insurance would need to work only five more hours a week to meet the 30-hours-a-week threshold to qualify for the benefit, according to Whole Foods.

In addition to star ratings, the new interactive touch screens will push Amazon Prime, the $119-a-year shipping and media subscription that is core to Amazon’s retail strategy. Whole Foods also offers discounts to Prime members — indeed, Prime signs began appearing in Whole Foods stores not long after the acquisition — and checkers had previously been instructed to ask every customer to join. Stickers on cash registers say, “Ask for Prime every time,” the California employee said.

He said prompting customers about Prime membership sometimes produces derisive comments from customers dissatisfied with their Prime savings, Amazon’s corporate practices or founder Jeff Bezos. He said it can also slow the checkout process if, for example, a customer is a Prime member already but doesn’t have the app on their phone. They may try to download it and set it up, delaying their transaction and the shoppers waiting in line behind them.

“I can see this happening more once they have the [touchscreen] up,” he said.

The Whole Foods representative said the company hasn’t seen any such slowdowns since it started piloting the touch screens this summer.