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Sonoma County shoppers react after Amazon lowers Whole Foods prices

Kathleen Dunnagan of Santa Rosa loads her Whole Foods Market grocery purchase, Monday August 28, 2017 on Yulupa Ave. in santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

ROBERT DIGITALE,

Amazon closed its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods Monday, affecting hundreds of stores in North America and the United Kingdom and thousands of shoppers’ grocery bills as part of its pledge to make natural and organic food “available for everyone.”

Amazon immediately lowered prices on a number of items, but for regular Whole Foods shoppers interviewed Monday in Santa Rosa, quality will continue to outweigh price in terms of priorities.

Susan Friedman heard she might be saving as much of a dollar on avocados at the Whole Foods on Yulupa Avenue because of the acquisition, but didn’t notice much difference in her bill.

She would welcome paying less, but what mattered more was buying high-quality food and interacting with the “wonderful” staff there.

“It feels like a real neighborhood store,” said Friedman, recalling how staff members cordially greeted her grandchildren when she brought them to the store.

Whole Foods has five Sonoma County stores, including two in Santa Rosa and one each in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Petaluma.

In New York, the Associated Press reported Monday that a half-gallon of milk was 50 cents cheaper at a Whole Foods there. Ground beef was down by $2 a pound and an organic avocado cost a buck less.

“When I pay attention to cost, I’m not coming to Whole Foods,” said Joel Quigley, a Santa Rosan who works in the wine industry in Napa County.

He recalled the grocery company’s longtime reputation as “Whole Paycheck,” but said its stores offer consumers a special shopping experience. Of Amazon’s leaders, he said, “If they’re smart, they’ll keep that alive.”

Sonoma County food producers and grocers expect Amazon’s latest move will shake up their industry.

The coming changes could include new food pickup and home delivery options for consumers, smaller profits for producers and more challenges for food startups seeking shelf space in the grocery aisle.

Such shifts are expected to force other supermarkets to adjust the way they do business.

For their part, Amazon and Whole Foods officials suggested they can do it all — cut prices and still bring the highest quality food to consumers. John Mackey, a Whole Foods co-founder who will stay on as CEO, said in a statement that the company will “double down” on providing quality products, and “we can’t wait to start showing customers what’s possible when Whole Foods Market and Amazon innovate together.”

Among the plans is that the $99-a-year Amazon Prime program “will become Whole Foods Market’s customer rewards program,” offering special savings and other in-store benefits. Select stores also will be outfitted with Amazon Lockers, allowing patrons to pick up online purchases and send back online returns even as they make a trip to the store.

Certain Whole Foods products also have become available for online purchase in areas served by the AmazonFresh grocery delivery service.

Many observers will be watching to see whether the Whole Foods stores become distribution centers to expand such home delivery services around them.

In response to the grocery chain’s acquisition, competitors like Kroger are testing online grocery delivery in several cities. And Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, is expanding its online grocery business; last week it said it is joining forces with Google to let customers order goods by voice on Google-run smartphones and other devices.

Local grocers have previously acknowledged that Amazon already has changed whole industries, including the sale of books, apparel and a variety of goods. Even so, they said consumers here likely won’t see quick changes on such matters as local grocery deliveries.

Oliver’s Markets’ founder Steve Maass wasn’t available for comment Monday. But in late June he said of the acquisition, “I don’t think immediately it will have much effect on us.”

At that time, John Lloyd, an owner with his wife, Kim, of Big John’s Market in Healdsburg, called Amazon’s strategy “brilliant” and noted the existing Whole Foods outlets are “situated in the right places for what they want to do.” He predicted the stores will serve as distribution centers, offering home deliveries into relatively affluent neighborhoods with large numbers of residents who already have Amazon Prime memberships.

On Monday, Kathleen Dunnagan’s trip to Whole Foods seemed pretty typical.

“I did not save any money,” said Dunnagan, a Santa Rosa resident.

“I can guarantee you that.”

Like the other shoppers interviewed, she said it was too early to know what the changes would mean for consumers. But she wants the store to maintain its quality.

“I just hope it doesn’t change,” she said.

Patricia Robles-Mitten, another Santa Rosa resident, said a cashier assured her the store would still offer top products and service.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” said Robles-Mitten, “if we still maintained the quality but save a little?”

This story included information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.