Whole Foods Has an Empty-Shelf Problem — and a ‘Militaristic’ Stocking System Is Reportedly to Blame

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“It’s not that we don’t care … But our hands are tied,” an employee says. Photo: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

Practically since the day Amazon took over, Whole Foods customers have griped about products being out of stock. (You could create, like, a full magazine of bare shelves using only pics that angry Twitter users have posted since last fall.) Consensus is that this inventory problem obviously has to be the fault of Amazon, a boss with a reputation for cost-cutting and slave-driving. But a new Business Insider report today indicates that’s not actually the case: Whole Foods employees tell the site that these problems actually began “before the acquisition,” and blame shortages on a brutal inventory-management system that rolled out nationwide in early 2017 called order-to-shelf, or OTS.

If a stockroom is like an inventory middleman, think of OTS as a way for workers to go straight to the source, more or less — per Business Insider, products now arrive on trucks, then go directly onto store shelves. The change theoretically helps slash costs, save precious store space, and reduce waste. (The company was reportedly tossing “millions of dollars in inventory” before the switch.) But even workers who thought the old system was bad tell Business Insider that Whole Foods went “too far” with OTS.

The new setup supposedly caps inventory at “enough product to keep the shelf full and no extra,” which employees say in some cases amounts to 25 percent of what they used to get. They say seafood and meat are sometimes now stored in the same freezer, and that their stores are “constantly running out of products in every department,” enough that “entire aisles are empty at times.”

Worse, employees describe OTS as part of a “militaristic” regime that also penalizes managers if even one box is found “facing the wrong way.” Three write-ups can result in being fired, and one way to get written up is apparently to have too much inventory. Workers say that it’s “crushed” morale in stores, where everybody operates in a sort of constant fear of getting “walked” (having management physically go through their section).

No customer likes empty shelves, but it’s also interesting that complaints didn’t really pick up steam until after Amazon took the reins. Shoppers have since also slammed what they call Whole Foods’ “deteriorating” produce quality. Of course, it’s possible that the buyout put Whole Foods under a magnifying glass, and it definitely caused foot traffic in stores to climb — two explanations for why hardly anybody noticed the shortages until months after the new system rolled out. But Amazon’s team, which also has a reputation for running its proverbial trains on time, reportedly told employees that they “weren’t aware” of these problems, despite workers assuring Business Insider that they’re a topic of conversation even among Whole Foods’ regional management.

Why Do Whole Foods’ Shelves Always Seem Empty?