My Whole Foods Discount Is the Best — Worst? — Mostly Best

by Andrea Laurion

Before I started working at Whole Foods last December, I was only an occasional shopper. I went in when I needed something specific, like broccoli rabe or gluten-free cupcakes for a friend’s party. I never wanted to buy more than a few items because I didn’t trust myself. Everything in the store seems like such a good idea — organic, all-natural, so good for you — that I kept myself confined to only the essentials out of financial necessity. My secret fear was that I would go into a shopping trance and wake up in the parking lot with half my bank account missing on a week’s worth of groceries. Like many secret fears, it was based on letting out the worst side of myself.

Whole Foods offers an employee discount starting at 20 percent. My regular exposure to the store, in combination with my discount, has brought many new things to my life that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise: Cherry kombucha with chia seeds. Olbas Inhalers. My new favorite lip balm. Bottled yerba mate. The shampoo that finally soothed my angry scalp. It’s nice to be able to pick up a few last minute items at the end of a shift (always half & half and carrots, for some reason) and save a couple bucks on stuff I was going to buy anyway. I don’t buy all my groceries at Whole Foods — instead of a big weekly grocery haul, I tend to make smaller trips at a variety of stores based on whatever ingredients I need and whichever place is the closest — and sometimes, based on proximity, it’s the store where I work.

In April, each employee received a 40 percent off coupon for Team Member Appreciation Week. It could only be redeemed once, so there was strategy with this. Some people planned ahead and ordered their favorites by the case. Among my out of ordinary purchases were a quiche ($15), a pair of TOMS ($50), a bouquet of gerbera daisies ($9.99), and the ultimate luxury, two magazines (The New Yorker, $7.99, and O, The Oprah Magazine, $5.99). It was fun to Treat ‘Yo Self. I suppose this would have been the one time to go Supermarket Sweep-style on the store, but the secret fear kept me in my place (it was for the best).

Still, it’s not always roses and discounted kale. If I were to construct a line graph detailing my lunch-bringing habits in the past year, it would be a diagonal line down. Back when I was a full-time office worker, I almost always brought my lunch, mostly out of necessity. Everywhere I’ve worked since college lacked decent nearby lunch spots. Those suburban offices offered nothing more than a few fast food drive-thrus. This is the first time in years that I’m working somewhere with numerous options so close at hand. It was a lot easier to eat boring leftovers when I didn’t have much to choose from as an alternative.

My first couple months at Whole Foods, I made it a point to eat a big meal before going into work. That way, when I would purchase something, it would be small: a piece of fruit, maybe a drink. My routine hasn’t stayed consistent. There were days I didn’t have time to prepare something before work. I got into a lunch-packing rut. The choices I made reflected those changes. I wasn’t buying an orange and a cup of tea, but a sandwich. A salad weighed down with cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. Plus, working next door the bakery is tough on my sweet tooth.

Lifestyle creep adds up. I wasn’t making major changes to my life, like upgrading my car or moving into a bigger apartment. Even the unrestrained big purchases that I was afraid of making weren’t my downfall. It was the little purchases that nicked away at my paychecks in $10 increments. A discount can only take away so much. I was saving money, but I had to spend it first.

I know that I’m the one who puts myself into this situation. And I’m lucky to have this situation in the first place — not all retailers offer their employees a discount. This temptation to spend was not something I took into consideration when I got the job. It comes down to whether I want to save money or time and lately, time has been winning.

A few months ago, I was picking up a couple items in the Whole Foods frozen aisle after a shift. The woman next to me was comparing prices. She shook her head as she asked me, “How do people afford to fill their carts here?”

She gestured to a full shopping cart at the end of the aisle and looked at me with a pained expression, a mixture of envy and bewilderment. I knew that look. It’s the look of feeling left out, that everyone else is buying whatever they want while you’re still caring about your budget.

“Most people don’t fill their carts,” I told her. “That’s the secret. They just get a few things.”

Andrea Laurion can be found behind the prepared foods counter. None of her favorite products paid for her humble recommendation.

Photo: David Shankbone

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