Battle of the Brands: Borders vs. Whole Foods


It is one of those beautiful, lazy summer days.


The sky is so perfect it looks like a screensaver. Warm air. Slight breeze. Relaxed people walk up the little streets then back down again, always with something in hand. Some clutch mini-purses with loops for around the wrist.  Others, iced coffee. Huge strollers with tiny babies. Everybody talking idly about nothing.


Some of those happy people go into Borders. Not knowing that they’re about to be sucked into an airless tunnel. Where the experience rips the cheer out of all but the most resilient.


Open the door. Immediately there are neon circles flashing some amount of percent off of this or that. A haphazardly placed black plastic basket holds discs of some sort and says “50% off.” Shelf signs promise, “buy 2 get 1 free.” Everywhere you look, low-low- prices. When it’s retail anyway so it starts out all marked up.


If you stand still too long, you worry, they might put a price tag on you.


Move toward the magazine section, scanning for “People” or “Us” or “Star.” No warning: They’ve moved them since last week. Now the gossip magazines are sandwiched next to the music ones and the intellectual film journals.  No logic here since you can tell from the cover of each respective kind of publication that they are intended for completely unrelated audiences.


Onward through the confusion. Look for the book “The Help” and saleswoman herself can barely find it. Return five minutes later to get an unscarred copy and can’t remember where the hell it was. Was it before “Inspirational?” Or After “History?” Who knows? Who cares? One cannot tell what the point of the layout is at all.


Of course, there are those who come in just in search of the Wifi. Waiting miserably for a table and chair, or sharing out of desperation. Skulking around like thieves.


I always feel guilty about doing that. So I will buy something. But the coffee is terrible no matter what kind of syrup they put in it. Not to mention that the food looks completely stale. That the half-and-half is forever empty, and the counter around it is unkempt. That there seems to be no strategy behind what kind of food they sell.


Plus the people who work there – you can’t call them baristas because that would imply some level of enagement with coffee – seem like prisoners serving out a life sentence. Not that they should be jumping for joy, but why are the people at Starbucks so much happier?


I went to a Starbucks the other day and the person who was cleaning the trash can said to me, “I just love this place. I love it so much I should do a commercial.”


I mean, if there is a secret sauce then Starbucks has it.


But not Borders. The people there are visibly depressed. They try to be polite but wear the facial expressions of people being held hostage at a convenience store, trying to pass a “call 911” note to a hapless walk-in.


Once, walking away from the counter, I heard one food representative half-heartedly joke to another, “Do you call it ‘iced decaf’ or ‘decaf iced’?” In Starbucks the baristas say, “I hate that freakin’ song, turn it off!” Yeah!


A store full of morose people is a store in trouble.


It’s a fractured experience to be in Borders, actually. With most of the store for books and such and a separate portion for food and WiFi. They don’t relate. And you can see it visually: The color scheme doesn’t match (maroon walls and summer-hued posters) and the fonts in the signage don’t go together either – almost as if two or three different agencies had competed for the business of building the brand image, and Borders just walked away with carpet samples.


If you can get away from Borders and go across the street, you will enter a world that I am confident Borders executives have never seen. For if they had, they would be ashamed to admit where they work at all.


It’s called Whole Foods. You’ve heard of it. Well, they are ramping up their game. Based on a visit to the across-the-street store and another one not far away, here are just 20 noticeable applications of the Whole Foods “brand recipe” (the list could go on):


1.     Joy is in the signage. Peach cobbler, “Oh how sweet it is!” Every detail lovingly captured.


2.     Free community events – especially cooking classes for adults and kids, for free.


3.     Signs hung prominently from the ceiling that talk about the company’s commitment to ethical practices.


4.     Comment cards placed in front of the cash register that make it easy and inviting to rate how you were treated that day.


5.     Educational information placed prominently near the fruits, the vegetables, the ready-made food bar, everywhere.


6.     Beautiful displays of cut-up fruit, of soap, of coffee, of peanut butter, of trail mix, almost anything you can think of to display, they display. Even beans and dried mushrooms.


7.     Absolute abundance everywhere you look. Piles and piles of stuff.


8.     Sales are discreet and don’t look desperate.


9.     Fun machines that let you make your own combination peanut butters and pop your own multigrain wafers. Stations where you can assemble your own custom-made granola, and so on.


10.  Small but ample spaces where different cuisines and types of foods can be enjoyed – a cultural world tour.


11.  Everything is packaged as if it were premium.


12.  Aisles are wide.


13.  Checkout is fast.


14.  There are accommodations for people with disabilities, including free power scooters.


15.  There is a cafeteria where you can take the food from the carryout area and enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.


16.  Curb appeal – with flowers, watermelons, and all types of things displayed outside in an appealing way.


17.  Nice mini-shopping carts for those who don’t have a ton to buy.


18.  Excellent lighting – bright, designer-looking, but not harsh.


19.  A constantly changing array of products but a consistent supply of the staples you need.


20.  Attention paid to the cost factor that can be daunting – they give you educational booklets about how to buy grains and beans and such in bulk, and cook them well.


The most important difference between Whole Foods and Borders, though, isn’t any specific thing that either one of them does.  Rather, it’s the big picture. The pure joy of living the brand. Whole Foods really has it. It has passion. Starbucks, too.


Borders, on the other hand, does not. The whole operation has the feel of a family whose members are so unhappy they want to run away. But they are bound to each other  for reasons nobody else can understand.


You want to know what I would do with Borders?


I would change the name to Starbucks. Apply the green brand. Implement the Starbucks Way of training. And integrate books and chairs just like you mix together salt and pepper – inseparable because reading and coffee go together. (Seattle’s Best coffee is Starbucks’ anyway…and that brew can only get better with the Starbucks logo attached.)


When you have happy customers, you can trust them not to spill.


Have a good evening everyone, and I wish these two important businesses – brands that are an important part of my life and so many others – good luck!



Photo source here.