Retail Politics

Are all Whole Foods shoppers ultraliberal, blue-state, wine-sipping, touchy-feely tree huggers? Are all Cabela’s customers right- wing, red-state, beer-guzzling, flag-waving Bambi killers? Of course not, but that hasn’t stopped campaign consultants from using what we buy—and where we buy it—to predict how we’ll vote. Let the war between Camembert and camo begin.

January 2006By Comments

IN THE TINY, FREEWAY-RIVEN TOWN OF Buda, just at the point where the last straggling exurbs south of Austin start to dissolve into rolling blackland prairie, stands the gargantuan outdoor retailer known as Cabela’s. You can see the hulking, green-roofed, 185,000-square-foot structure from miles away. You can also see, if you stand in the store’s parking lot on a Saturday, the astounding number of people who come here to shop. Starting in mid-morning, a seemingly endless line of vehicles streams off the dedicated Cabela’s exit on Interstate 35. By mid-afternoon they will fill much of the 126-acre site, creating a shimmering lake of automotive sheet metal from which emerge some 15,000 men, women, and children in blue jeans and gimme caps. More than half of them have driven at least one hundred miles, one way, to get here. And once inside this Disneyfied hunting-lodge-on-steroids, where scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelles, and animatronic hunters dot the floor, they stay, on average, for four and a half hours. Clearly, this is no ordinary shop, and these are not mere shoppers. You can tell that they are pilgrims. They are seekers.

They have come, in fact, because Cabela’s is less a store in the traditional sense than a theory of modern America, a retail theme park where consumer preferences become lifestyles, lifestyles become convictions, and convictions become political organizing principles. You do not drive more than two hundred miles with your family crammed into an F-150 crew cab just to buy a crankbait or a box of ammunition. You do not need four hours to settle on a hunting knife or a bottle of Tink’s #69 Doe-In-Rut buck lure gel. At Cabela’s, the notion of buying morphs into something that transcends both the store’s freakishly large inventory and its hand-painted, museumlike displays of stuffed animals—something like a way of looking at the world, a system of values. Those values belong, predictably, to Republican, red-state America, a place inhabited by hunters, fishermen, evangelical Christians, my-country-right-or-wrong patriots, nascar enthusiasts, red-toothed conservatives, Travis Tritt fans, and anti-taxers who do not drink crisp, amusing pinot grigios with their pinkies in the air, thank you.

And so it is a neat piece of geographic irony that a mere seventeen miles up the road in hyperliberal blue-state Austin is a store that is as nearly antithetical to Cabela’s as it is possible to be: Whole Foods Market, the glittering urban flagship of the company that is the largest retailer of organic and natural foods in the world. Though not as large as Cabela’s, at 80,000 square feet Whole Foods is huge by supermarket standards and houses its own full-scale bakery, a raw-food bar, nut-roasting stands, an unimaginably large inventory of oddly named cheeses, machines that allow you to make your own organic cashew and peanut butter, and row after row of vitamins and exotics such as flaxseed oil, Fruit Enzyme Mist, and Korean roasted salt.

The differences between the two stores, which opened in 2005 within four months of each other, are almost humorously stark. Cabela’s sells infant playsuits and diaper covers in camouflage styles; Whole Foods sells organic-cotton infant clothes with the words “Earth Goddess” and “Awareness Generation” printed on them. Cabela’s offers classes on winches, scent secrets, and shotgun reloading; at Whole Foods you can learn about aromatherapy, herbs, and iridology. At Cabela’s you can buy magazines like Field & Stream and Petersen’s 4 Wheel & Off-Road; at Whole Foods you can buy Mother Jones and Buddhadharma, a magazine for Buddhists. At Cabela’s you learn how to kill things with maximum efficiency; at Whole Foods you are told to what lengths the store goes to ensure that the animals whose meat it sells had decent, comfortable lives, complete with bedtime stories and tummy rubs, before they were slaughtered. And so on.

The point of such comparisons should be obvious: The things we buy suggest—as never before—the kinds of people we are, who our friends are, and what we value. We all recognize, intuitively, the difference between the Cabela’s crowd and the Whole Foods set and all the cultural nuances they represent. So, as it turns out, do politicians. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney both campaigned at Cabela’s stores in 2004, seeking the dependably Republican votes of the “hook and bullet” crowd. This was no random strategy. During the presidential campaign, the Bushies came up with the idea that the best indicator of how a person was going to vote was neither his income nor his views on a particular political issue, such as abortion or taxes. Instead, it was the stuff he consumed: from wines and cheeses to cars and footwear to magazines and even television shows. The theory worked brilliantly. By merging voter files and consumer data, the Bush campaign was able to determine, with dazzling and unprecedented accuracy, who its potential supporters were. The Republicans had a record turnout.

The lesson is that in a country where all culture is mass culture and branding is the way the middle class expresses its identity, outfits like Whole Foods and Cabela’s—two of the most muscular brands ever seen in the American marketplace—are engaged in a sort of product-based mass marketing of individualism. They are selling highly customized products to people who buy them not only because they want them but also because the products tell them who they are as individuals. All of which adds up to the rather startling fact that, in 2006, a person’s views on education, taxes, abortion, homosexuality, gun control, and school prayer may ultimately line up behind a wedge of imported Fourme d’Ambert cheese or an Ol’ Betsy friction-based turkey caller.

Cabela’s customers may regard Whole Foodies as self-indulgent, herb-swilling, Volvo-driving nihilists, and the latter may see the former as fundamentalist, knuckle-dragging Bambi killers, but the truth is that the companies are extraordinarily similar in many ways. Both are capitalist machines that started from humble, heartland roots. Cabela’s was built from a kitchen table in rural Nebraska for a core of fanatical hunters and fishermen. Whole Foods grew from a small store in downtown Austin with a customer base of high-church vegetarians. Both companies have gone public, making their owners richer than organic goose grease, and they are both in the midst of aggressive expansions. They are sleek, rapacious competitors, “category killers” that tend to overwhelm and dominate their markets. Both companies are legendary for their excellent customer service, and both have appeared on Fortune magazine’s list of the one hundred best places to work in America.

Whole Foods, which started with a single Austin store in 1980, has grown into a $4.7 billion behemoth with 180 stores in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom that employ 38,000 people. Since 1991, the company has grown at a compounded annual rate of 32 percent, much of it fueled by acquisitions of smaller, weaker, and less visionary competitors such as Mrs. Gooch’s, Bread and Circus, and Fresh Fields. The company owes its success mainly to two conspicuous consumer trends: a growing demand for food that does not contain pesticides, growth hormones, or artificial flavoring, color, or preservatives and shoppers’ unaccountable willingness to pay premiums of up to 175 percent over the regular cost of ordinary supermarket food. The result is that the place is a giant cash mill of eco-righteousness. Whole Foods stores bring in $870 per square foot—twice the industry average—which means that this year its new Austin store could account for more than $64 million in revenue.

Cabela’s began as a mail-order company in 1961, when a good old Nebraskan named Dick Cabela started selling fishing flies. Along with his wife, Mary, and his brother Jim, he soon turned his idea into the biggest outdoor-goods catalog company in the world, one that now mails 120 million catalogs under 76 titles to all fifty states and 120 countries. The scope of the catalogs is mind-numbing: They offer 245,000 products from four thousand suppliers in 99 countries. The catalog business allowed Cabela’s to know precisely who its customers were, where they lived, and what they bought. And this data bank of information—this certainty of the location and buying habits of its customer base—is what led Cabela’s to open retail stores starting in 1987. By the end of 2006, the company will have eighteen megastores like the one in Buda, drawing some 40 million customers each year.

Whole Foods and Cabela’s share another trait too. Because they are more than just places to buy things—“destination retail” is the buzz term for it in the trade—both are prodigious engines of economic development. Cities across the country are falling all over themselves to persuade the two companies to open stores. Cabela’s is such a potent commercial magnet that it can change a town’s fortunes almost overnight, and to attract a megastore, places like Buda must now ante up at least $30 million in tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, and other goodies. In Austin, Whole Foods has become downtown’s main retail focal point, a sort of economic pivot around which future growth will take place. In perfect red state—blue state contrast, Cabela’s stores, which are uniformly exurban, tend to spawn sprawl. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other big-box stores like to locate near them, as do national chain hotels, national chain restaurants, and other elements of freeway strip sprawl that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore once railed against on the campaign trail. Whole Foods, of course, is much less likely to make Al gag: It stands for more politically correct urban infill and the rebuilding of city cores.

But perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two is their understanding that, as lifestyle capitalists, they are not really in the business of selling fishhooks and organic peanut butter. Belief is at the heart of this new, intensely polarized commercial culture, as is the desire to transcend ordinary materialism. At Cabela’s what is being sold is an idea of prelapsarian America, a country of forests and trees and clear streams and mist rising on purple mountains, a more primitive, self-reliant, and nobler America where everyone hunted for meat, where women knew how to shoot, field-dress, and cook a wild boar, and where pointy-headed liberals from Connecticut were not trying to banish God from our schools. Cabela’s is about guns and gun culture and is one of the largest single donors to the National Rifle Association Foundation.

Whole Foods is also selling thin air, but in an even more finely calibrated way. The store promotes vegetarianism, organic farming, support for environmental issues, and the idea of a healthy, disease-free life. The company itself is deeply political and gives 5 percent of its earnings to various nonprofit organizations. It is in the vanguard of more causes than you can shake a sandalwood incense stick at: the organic-farming movement, the anti-genetic-engineering movement, the Save the Chilean Sea Bass and sustainable seafood movements, and the turtle-safe shrimp movements. All of this is visible in the store’s literature and in the store itself. The buyer thus gets a hefty dollop of ideology along with his shrimp—Thai basil udon, bee pollen, or wild yellowfin tuna filet from Tokyo. And it is just this sort of purchase-as-political-act, if you will, that many people think is permanently changing the commercial landscape in this country. In her new book Megatrends 2010, author Patricia Aburdene calls it “conscious capitalism” and predicts that “values-driven consumers” are beginning to effect a revolution in the American marketplace. Whole Foods is her prime example.

Aburdene does not mention Cabela’s, because her conscious capitalism is all about socially responsible investing, yoga, meditation, divine presence, ecological sustainability, and every blue-state, karma-centered, touchy-feely, liberal, elitist notion you might imagine. It would not embrace the idea of bow hunting for elk or blasting cute little doves from the sky. But Cabela’s is absolutely what she is talking about. Cabela’s is all about belief-driven buying.

This is all dazzlingly apparent on the shop floor, a timber-walled area the size of three football fields with an impossibly remote ceiling from which hangs an authentic antique Piper Cub aircraft. That is the first thing you notice, followed by the hundreds of stuffed animal heads mounted on the walls. Then there are three Smithsonian-scale nature dioramas, including a forty-foot fake rock mountain with a cascading waterfall, dozens of vacant-looking furry creatures, autumnal aspen trees, and a real trout pond. There is a 60,000-gallon aquarium filled with freshwater fish, where customers cluster at feeding time, noses pressed to the glass. Behind the camping section, a jokey animatronic deer welcomes you to a laser shooting gallery that reminds you, in case you had forgotten, of just exactly how much fun it is to shoot things. In immediate proximity to these themed attractions—the bait, if you will—is the hook: several acres of camouflage clothing and accessories, enough ordnance to retake Baghdad, row after row of camping and outdoor gear, and more kinds of fishing poles, reels, and lures than you would have given human beings credit for being able to think up.

What put Cabela’s in a class by itself are not only such elaborate entertainments but also its earnest attempts to educate its clientele. The aquarium, for example, is filled with fish from Central Texas streams and rivers that were caught by the store’s staff. A sign helps you tell a bass from a catfish. On one of my visits, an employee trolled a brightly colored fishing lure, with its hooks removed, through the tank. Several hundred customers watched raptly as one fish after another hit the lure and spit it out.

The entire experience was educational in the best sense. Even the snack bar has an educational tilt: Its offerings include elk, wild boar, and ostrich sandwiches as well as bison and venison brats. Cabela’s runs hundreds of school tours through its meticulously labeled dioramas, another of which includes a 12,000-square-foot mountain-themed room called Big Game Country. It is an enormous investment in a part of the store that generates no retail sales at all, and it is evidence of another component to the retail-purchase-as-belief phenomenon that is strikingly similar to the sort of stuff the Whole Foodies believe in: conservation. A sign at the foot of the rock mountain pays “tribute to America’s big-game sportsmen for the ever-increasing number of wildlife we enjoy today.” The sign points out, among other things, that because of the taxes sportsmen pay on sporting goods, the number of pronghorn antelope has grown from fewer than 25,000 in 1920 to more than 570,000 today. Cabela’s stands for hunting and killing things; it also stands for responsible stewardship of the environment. And it wants you to know that.

Whole Foods’ flagship store in Austin also warmly embraces the notion of giantism: Bigger is better; more is better. Here, too, there are theme park—like aspects: a chocolate “enrobing station” consisting of a burbling fountain of pure liquid chocolate into which the store offers to dip anything you purchase, a murmuring brook cut into a limestone patio, live music with big-name Austin bands on an arbor-strewn plaza, an enormous walk-in refrigerator featuring eight hundred brands of beer, wheat grinders where you can mill your own flour, and escalators built like moving sidewalks that accommodate shopping carts. And everywhere there are reminders that the store has a purpose beyond just the crude act of selling people stuff. “Why buy organic cotton?” inquires a sign over the store’s spacious racks of clothing, which include $36 baby tops and $40 yoga pants. Because it “prevents contamination of cotton seeds, which enter the food chain . . . Support farmers and manufacturers by showing there is demand for responsibly grown cotton products.”

Like Cabela’s, the inventory is remarkable for its range and variety. Here the food is arrayed in lush, geometric rows and stacks, and it all looks as if it belongs on a magazine cover: There are cornucopia-like wicker baskets overflowing with organic d’Anjou pears, papayas, organic squashes, and peppers in brilliant yellow, red, and green. There are acrylic hampers of green beans in shades of such perfect, implausibly deep green they look almost unnatural. There is a thirty-foot bin of nothing but mushrooms, some of which cost $39.99 a pound. And then there are the dining areas. The store has five of them, making it, in effect, one of the city’s largest restaurants. At lunch one day at the seafood bar, my companions and I had yellowfin tuna encrusted with sesame seeds and ginger and fresh wild salmon with wasabi butter. It was as good as anything you would get in a downtown Austin restaurant and illustrates another reason for the store’s allure: It sells a lot of fancy, high-end food.

The place is in fact stuffed to the rafters with pricey produce and prepared food: boneless Muscovy duck breast for $14.99 a pound, top-round veal scallopine at $19.99 a pound, grouper for $16.99 a pound, prepared Dungeness-crab cakes for $18.99 a pound, and lots of organic produce at two to three times the cost of conventional produce. (Whole Foods does carry products—notably its “365” line—that are competitive with supermarkets.) In this sense, Whole Foods marks a milestone in belief-driven marketing: the ability to sell such food at what Forbes magazine termed “prices so obscenely high they prompt gasps of disbelief” and somehow convince people that they are getting a good deal. But there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the store’s militant environmentalism and pure-food standards and its ability to charge $19.99 per pound for curry tuna satay or twice the average price for regular uncooked chicken.

The beliefs that drive such purchases are, of course, ultimately political, and anyone who still doubts that people who drive Volvos are Democrats or that Buick owners are Republicans need only look at the staggeringly successful Republican get-out-the-vote campaign in the last presidential election. I had heard that the Bush campaign had used “consumer preference” data to figure out who its voters were, so I decided to call the man behind that effort, Bush’s chief strategist Matthew Dowd, a friendly, articulate Austinite who was a key member of the president’s 2004 campaign team. When I told him I was writing a somewhat unorthodox story about Whole Foods and Cabela’s as political ideas and asked if that was something he would be interested in talking about, he replied, “That is exactly the kind of thing we have been looking at. We have spent a lot of time looking at what people buy.”

At lunch at Las Manitas, in Austin, which had been the Bush campaign’s company cafeteria during his first presidential run despite the fact that it is also a haven for every left-winger in town, he explained what he meant. “Traditional political science says that you can predict who a person is going to vote for based on his income or whether he is pro-choice or pro-life, for taxes or against,” Dowd said. “Well, that does not work. Lifestyle is what determines political choice. I would rather know where they shop, what they buy, what kind of car they drive, what sports they watch, where the kids go to school. Income is no predictor: It can tell you how fifty-three or fifty-four out of one hundred people will vote. But the problem is that you need to get to at least seventy-five percent for it to be of any use in a campaign.”

The problem was getting enough information on what people actually bought. Such knowledge is coveted in politics these days. In our polarized political culture, sending pro-Bush propaganda to Democratic voters not only does not change their minds but also annoys and motivates them to vote against Bush. But if a candidate knows who is likely to vote for him, he can tell his organizers and precinct captains exactly whose doors to knock on, whose numbers to call. From primary-voting records, it is relatively easy for a candidate to see who the active Democrats and Republicans are. But the key in this election was to identify—and to turn out in large numbers—historically “passive” Republicans.

But how to find this out? Dowd’s solution was to combine consumer data with voter files. He was able to amass 182 unique pieces of data on each voter (yes, that sort of information is readily available on all of us). “The idea was to come up with a model, based on consumer preference, that would allow us to determine, with eighty-five to ninety percent accuracy, if the person is a Republican or a Democrat,” said Dowd. “Nobody had ever done that before. We did this sort of microtargeting in sixteen states, and we spent millions on the data.” And it worked. In Dowd’s model, Whole Foods or Cabela’s becomes one input among many. “The stores become a strong link to other data,” he said. “Combine that with the knowledge that the person drives a certain kind of car or buys certain magazines, and you start to get a strong profile.”

Dowd also promoted the idea of having both Bush and Cheney campaign at Cabela’s stores in 2004. Of Bush’s visit to the store in Wheeling, West Virginia, Dowd said: “Cabela’s gave us a way to reach the middle-class white Republican, exactly the crowd that the Democrats have lost. You would think that the male vote, working class, with low income, would be a Democrat. But they are hunters and fishermen and believe in property rights. That is a Cabela’s crowd.” John Kerry, meanwhile, wouldn’t have been caught dead in Whole Foods, a store that might have reinforced all the limp-wristed, nonfat-decaf-mocha-latte-sipping stereotypes of Democratic politicians. Though he did not visit Cabela’s, he actively courted the readers of Field & Stream magazine, which amounts to the same thing.

Matching consumer preferences with voting profiles yields all sorts of interesting information. Republicans buy domestic SUVs and minivans; Democrats buy foreign ones. R’s drive Audis and GMCs and watch Fox News, and D’s drive Subarus and Volvos and watch CBS and CNN. The History and Learning channels skew heavily R, while the Food Network is overwhelmingly D. Republicans drink dark alcoholic beverages such as scotch and bourbon and red wine; Democrats drink white ones like gin and vodka, and they prefer white wine. Dr Pepper is a Republican drink; Fanta is Democratic. Camping equipment and hiking gear—which Dowd points out are “noninvasive” outdoor products—tilt Democratic. Some of the data is wonderfully unpredictable: The TV show Will & Grace, for example, which centers on the lives of a gay man and a straight woman, leans heavily Republican. It’s the Republican women who are watching it.

Of course, for all the theorizing about the political meaning of Cabela’s and Whole Foods, at some point the stereotypes begin to fall apart. American politics, like Americans themselves, does not always fall into convenient categories. Whole Foods may reek of blue-state attitudes, but its downtown Austin store clearly does not run entirely on purchases made by inner-city liberals, many of whom cannot afford this stuff. The store needs wealthy west-side conservatives to survive, and I know a number of Republicans who do their shopping at Whole Foods. They do not seem to be bothered by the store’s politics, which they find amusing.

And the company itself does not follow strict liberal stereotypes: It is a non-union company that has fiercely resisted unionization. Whole Foods’ chairman and co-founder, John Mackey, is a vegan but no Democrat. He is a multimillionaire who admires Ronald Reagan and reads the Wall Street Journal . Meanwhile, Cabela’s, the vaunted red-state giant, is opening a store next year in John Kerry country: Hartford, Connecticut.

Both stores are reaching well beyond their old, politically predictable customer bases. With vegetarians holding at around 5 percent of the population and hunters at 6 percent and dropping, they really have no choice. Flannel-shirted hunting zealots and pale, macrobiotic sylphs do not a Fortune 1000 company sustain. And so Whole Foods offers clothing, books, and expensive food for wealthy foodies, processed food for the business crowd, and racks of non-organic and non-vegetarian products. Cabela’s now devotes a large section of its store to selling furniture and another section to regular clothing, including high-end footgear under pricey brands like Merrell that are favored by blue-staters. All of which suggests that, as Cabela’s and Whole Foods grab ever-larger shares of the retail pie, more and more political impurity is likely to creep in at both stores. There is something both hilarious, and downright American, in the idea of an archconservative hitting the checkout line at Whole Foods with a copy of Buddhadharma, bottles of organic mandarin-orange patchouli deodorant and Dr. Hauschka’s Rhythmic Night Conditioner, and the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies. Stranger things have happened.

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