Whole Foods, Now an Amazon Company, Takes Aim at Walmart

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The joke used to be that Whole Foods Market’s real name was Whole Paycheck. The purveyor of organic and specialty foods is getting a makeover, beginning Monday morning, as new owner Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) cuts prices on such staples as kale and avocados.

In a press release last week, Amazon said that it plans to make Whole Foods “high-quality, natural and organic food affordable for everyone.” The company also will add special pricing at Whole Foods stores for Prime members.

Thus begins another skirmish with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT), but this time on ground of Walmart’s choosing. That makes it tougher for Amazon/Whole Foods, but Walmart has a problem too.

Walmart needs to make money on groceries and all the other stuff it sells in its brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon does not need to make money on selling groceries from Whole Foods’ 460 stores.

That could mean a price war that could be tough for Walmart to win. Walmart has more than 10 times as many physical U.S. stores as Whole Foods, and the Bentonville-based company has poured major cash into more fully integrating its online and physical stores.

That integration has begun to pay off. Still, Walmart depends on grocery sales for more than half of its annual revenues, and it cannot afford to be undercut by Whole Foods. It’s a reputation issue: if a story with a reputation for high-quality food at high prices now sells the same high-quality food for low prices, why not shop there instead of at Walmart?

There’s an element of aspirationalism here too. Consumers who have been shut out of Whole Foods because they couldn’t afford the prices now have the opportunity to move up the social ladder a notch by shopping at Whole Foods.

Amazon stock traded up about 0.2% in Monday’s premarket to $947.00. The 52-week range is $710.10 to $1,083.31 and the 12-month consensus price target is $1,142.54.

Walmart shares traded down about 0.1%, at $78.58 in a 52-week range of $65.28 to $81.99. The 12-month price target on the stock is $82.37.