Downward Spiral of Whole Foods House Brand

whole foods balsamic vinegar

My friend Carl Willat sent me this photo with the comment “noticeably worse” — meaning that the new version (on the right) is noticeably worse than the old version (on the left). 365 is the Whole Foods house brand. Years ago,the label of 365 balsamic vinegar said “aged 5 years”. Then one day it didn’t. The younger vinegar (aged 1 year?) tasted noticeably worse. In a side-by-side comparison, it was obvious.

Side-by-side comparisons, I discovered thanks to Carl, are powerful — and I could use that power to improve my life. A long time ago at his apartment I tasted five versions of limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) side by side. Of course the differences became clearer–that’s obvious. The surprise was that all of a sudden I cared about the differences. Before that tasting, I had had plenty of limoncello. But only at the side-by-side tasting did I develop a liking for the good stuff (more complex flavor) and a dislike for the cheaper stuff (simpler flavor). I stopped buying cheap limoncello and started buying expensive limoncello. I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I still do this. A few weeks ago I bought some rum to flavor my yogurt. I started with the cheapest brand. A week later, to compare, I got a more expensive brand. Side-by-side tasting showed it was clearly better. Now I sort of relish it — the side-by-side comparison made rum drinking more enjoyable. Soon I will get an even more expensive rum, to see how it stacks up.

I’m pretty sure such side-by-side comparisons are how connoisseurs are made. The evolutionary reason for this effect, I believe, is that connoisseurs will pay more than other people for well-made stuff, thus helping skilled artisans — during the Stone Age, the main source of innovation — make a living.

In Carl’s picture the new vinegar looks much cheaper than the old vinegar. The previous change (from aged 5 years to not aged 5 years) wasn’t accompanied by a cheaper-looking label. Maybe Whole Food headquarters had received complaints from manufacturers of other balsamic vinegars: Your house brand is too good. And they replied: Okay, we’ll cheapen it.

16 Replies to “Downward Spiral of Whole Foods House Brand”

  1. That reminds me of something I read about McDonald’s in a book called “Decision Traps”. McDonald’s had a rule that guided their decision making–if customers couldn’t tell the difference between a cheaper version of a product and the currently used product, replace the currently used product with the cheaper one. But customers started noticing the overall drop in quality. Product A was indistinguishable from cheaper Product B, so Product B was used. Product B was indistinguishable from cheaper Product C, so Product C was used, but Product C when compared with Product A was obviously worse. So went the logic, I guess.

  2. Do you do a blind taste test, or do you do it knowing the brand and cost of different items? Not sure what’s better, blind has the appeal of “rationality” though we never actually drink anything blind. Hence the “pepsi paradox” (in blind taste tests people prefer pepsi to coke, but in real life they choose coke, and even legitimately enjoy coke more when they see that it’s a coke)

    1. I’ve noticed the connoisseur effect (an increase in both (a) the hedonic range produced by a product — more pleasure from the best, less pleasure from the worst — and (b) discriminability) in both blind taste tests and non-blind taste tests.

  3. > Iā€™m pretty sure such side-by-side comparisons are how connoisseurs are made. The evolutionary reason for this effect, I believe, is that connoisseurs will pay more than other people for well-made stuff, thus helping skilled artisans ā€” during the Stone Age, the main source of innovation ā€” make a living.

    That sounds like group selection… What’s in it for the would-be connoisseur?

    Also, in your paper, you missed a great example – better than buying stuff in China – of how language isn’t necessary for barter; the African

    1. “That sounds like group selection.” I suppose. I disagree with the Williams et al. arguments against group selection. There is plenty of shared fate in a community (whether your neighbor survives affects whether you survive) — for one reason, if all the fertile and younger females go extinct all the males will also go extinct. Shared fate also comes about if one member of a group can follow another member of the group to a food source. This shared fate, which does not depend on degree of kinship and which the critics of group selection didn’t notice (at least in what I’ve read), is why I believe cooperation between unrelated members of a community evolved. By helping (unrelated) others survive, you were helping yourself survive. In the particular example you mention, communities with connoisseurs outinnovated communities without connoisseurs.

      Thanks for reading my paper and thanks for the Wikipedia reference.

  4. The 365 vinegar originally came to my attention many years ago when the Chronicle ran a blind taste test on several balsamic vinegars and the Whole Foods house brand won, surprising the local food experts who had acted as judges, because back then it only cost $4. The quality really did decline when they stopped aging it as long, but recently when they stopped aging it in wooden barrels it got a lot worse. When the bottles with the new label first appeared I immediately bought what was left of the old stock on the shelf at my local store, so I still have about ten bottles left that have been aged in wood. I go through that stuff pretty fast, though, so I need to find a new brand.

    1. “so I need to find a new brand” — yeah, the outside brands were right to complain. Or maybe this is just an example of making stuff worse and worse until people complain loudly enough.

  5. The publication Cook’s Illustrated and the associated TV show America’s Test Kitchen does legitimate side-by-side comparisons of various food products, and the results are often surprising (sort of, unless you’re somewhat cynical of consumer marketing). Often the cheaper products rate better, and those that are more expensive, “organic”, or endorsed don’t rate as well. Not always though, sometimes the more expensive products rate better.

    In the case of both rum and balsamic vinegar, I can say with some experience that there is a radical difference in flavor between cheap and not-cheap products, and both are products where you almost always get a better experience the more that you spend. The same is not true of other products such as say supermarket chicken stock.

  6. I once did some commercials for one of the big brands of instant coffee. Before we got started I was talking to the brand manager for the product, and I asked him if it were any good, if I would like drinking it. He said I would probably prefer one of their more expensive brands. “But what about the one we’re selling, does it taste good?” He explained that the idea wasn’t to make it good, but to make it as bad as possible but where people would still buy it. That way they knew their profit margins were maximized. “So can you honestly say anything good about this coffee we’re advertising?” I asked him.

    “It has a low twig count.”

  7. Reminds me of a story I heard over twenty years ago about the Xacto company. They had a solid business, but revenues and profits were basically flat for many years. So they brought in an expert to make suggestions.

    The expert told them that their problem was that they were using too good an alloy in their blades. As a result, the blades never went dull, so were only replaced when they broke (a rare event.)

    They took his advice and went to a softer steel. Since there aren’t any Xacto blade sharpeners, sales (and profits) exploded.

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