Local people often develop fierce loyalties to grocery stores. Times or Foodland. Don Quijote or Safeway. Each has its loyal customers.

I grew up in Nuuanu, a short walk from the Pali Safeway. Though I occasionally flirted with Times, I remained dedicated to my neighborhood grocer.

My dedication was briefly interrupted during high school, while I worked at Huckleberry Farms, a health food store which used to live in the Nuuanu Shopping Plaza.

After moving from Nuuanu to Ala Moana — and despite much resistance — I’ve recently become a Whole Foods customer. In my choice of grocer, I’ve followed many millennials who are seeking more than convenience from their grocery store.

My generation is willing to pay more for products with sustainable, environmentally friendly, organic or natural ingredients. Whole Foods obliges: organic vegetables for my girlfriend and responsibly sourced meat for me. Of course, it’s pricier than standard grocery fare, but prices are on par with Whole Foods’ direct competitors. 

Whole Foods Kakaako with empty chairs out front with reflection of the high rises/condominiums.

Whole Foods in Kakaako is a big draw for the millennial market.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The choice of grocery store may seem insignificant, but it represents the basis for life.

In the absence of local food production, grocery stores provide for our basic needs. Through sales, advertising and store design, they guide our purchase decisions. Their stock becomes our pantry.

Compare Sam’s Club with Costco, and you can see how choices are shaped. Each store is designed to service a different market segment, but in the process, they create those segments.

Costco is definitely a bit more upscale and cosmopolitan. Inside, you’ll find single-origin olive oils from Italy and a vast selection of imported wine. In comparison, Sam’s Club is down-to-earth and patriotic. Its selections closely resemble the standard American diet.

Local health food stores can’t compete with Whole Foods, an Amazon-backed behemoth. Down to Earth, which doesn’t sell meat, has conceded the carnivore demographic and caters to the meatless minority.

Kokua Market, the local cooperative, is struggling financially as it competes with the big players, losing $10,000 a month. At its most recent members’ meeting, owners decided to continue operations for at least a couple more months.

I feel conflicted when I support Whole Foods at the expense of local businesses, but location and selection win the day.

Kokua Market located in Moiliili.

Kokua Market, a local health food cooperative located in Moiliili, has struggled financially as it competes with Whole Foods and other big players.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the competition against local businesses, Whole Foods has the advantage of scale and big data. It has nearly 500 locations and can target customers with the same precision as Amazon. It is well-positioned to capture the emerging purchasing power of millennials.

Its competitors seem flat-footed by comparison. Foodland is making efforts to appeal to the changing preferences of millennial consumers. The flagship Foodland Farms location at Ala Moana is a good example of that. But Don Quijote, which acquired Times Supermarkets in 2017, seems content to cater to my mother’s and grandmother’s generations.

The millennial market has been left on the table for chains like Whole Foods, which use big data and social media to target customers. It’s another corporate triumph in the making.

Competing With Outsiders

It remains to be seen how long local chains like Foodland and KTA Super Stores can hold out. Neighbor island locations may prove more resistant to outside competition. But someday, our grocery stores might all be owned by outsiders: Don Quijote, Safeway, Walmart, Target and Whole Foods.

This shift may benefit consumers. Large chains succeed, at least in part, because they offer lower prices, better selection, and more convenience to their customers. Yet they also come under fire for poor labor practices.

In Hawaii, a more immediate concern is our independence. What does it mean that many hotels have offshore owners? That almost all our food is imported? That locally owned businesses are displaced by foreign corporations?

Perhaps it means nothing. Our choice of grocery store might be insignificant. Corporate control may be inevitable. At least we’ll have organic cauliflower in the new world order.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.