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Produce Land: New Adventures in Food Shopping

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Whole Foods, the supermarket chain that caters to the health conscious upscale set, is setting out to revolutionize the way people shop for food.

Whatever you call it, Whole Foods executives believe that the ideas in the store — which is broken up into enticing, food-centric lands, [a] la Disney — could have the kind of industry-shaking impact on grocery shopping that Starbucks has had on coffee drinking. Whole Foods could help transform grocery shopping into interactive theater.

Whole Foods is not only creating Disney-like “lands” where shoppers can drink, relax, and eat gourmet foods (and shop for gourmet-ish foods, of course), they’re making like the Michael J. Fox character in The Secret of My Success and going bigger while everyone else is going smaller.

Whole Foods is waving goodbye to those smallish, 31,000-square-foot stores and saying hello to 50,000-square-foot versions, 58 of which will be built in the next four years. This, at a time when the rest of the industry is actually shrinking its stores to an average 34,000 square feet, the Food Marketing Institute estimates.

This showcase Whole Foods is 80,000 square feet. Executives won’t say what it cost, but supermarket real estate experts familiar with Whole Foods peg it as high as $15 million, about twice the industry average.

What that investment bought: more room to wow shoppers — and more reasons for them to dawdle. And, as always, all the food is free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners or hydrogenated fats.

These developments – particularly if they turn out to be profitable – will have traditional supermarket chains quaking in their boots (anyone been to a King Kullen lately? It’s not for shits and giggles). I wouldn’t be surprised if the executives at Whole Foods looked at the Trader Joe’s success story – healthy foods, unusual choices, good prices, unusually good service – and translated them into their long-term strategy.

Among Whole Food’s planned delights:

Candy Island, where you can dip a fresh strawberry in a flowing, chocolate fountain for $1.59 each.

Lamar Street Greens, where you can sit among the organic produce and have a salad handmade for you to enjoy with a glass of Chardonnay.

Fifth Street Seafood, a version of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where you can have any of 150 fresh seafood items cooked, sliced, smoked or fried for instant eating.

Whole Body, where a massage therapist will work the kinks out with a 25-minute deep-tissue massage for $50.

In some rural areas, such as in Western New York, supermarket giants like Wegmans have prided themselves on being a one-stop shop for everything from film developing to buying lawn furniture.

Let’s see what the competition does to counter Whole Foods’ aggressive and interesting move.

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