Whole Foods’s SVP of merchandising shares what the retailer is looking for in new brands

Alyssa Vescio reveals what brands should know about getting on—and staying on—Whole Foods’s shelves.
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Whole Foods Market

4 min read

As SVP of merchandising, center store sourcing and product development at Whole Foods, Alyssa Vescio oversees the store’s grocery, general merchandise, and exclusive brand portfolio—from local products to national brands.

The role is equal parts “art and science,” Vescio told Retail Brew, as she leverages her 20 years of merchandising experience and a little risk-taking with data and insights to inform decision-making. To bring in new brands, she scours farmers markets, local co-ops, trade shows, other retailers, and even Instagram and TikTok and her friends’ shopping carts, and she shared what brands need to know about the journey to Whole Foods shelves and beyond.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is your process when you’re looking at a brand and figuring out if it’s right for Whole Foods beyond that standard Whole Foods criteria?

One of the starting points is our quality standards, those are non-negotiable for us…The second thing we look for is innovation that is interesting. We have a finite amount of space on our shelves, and a lot of mature categories. So when we’re looking at new entrants to the space and emerging brands, we look to say, “What is the open space within that category? Is this innovation bringing something completely new to the category? Is it disrupting or waking up the category? Will our customers be excited about it?” In many ways, we’re looking not just for a flavor extension of something, but really meaningful innovation within a category. We also look for that mission alignment. We are a purpose-driven company; we are a platform for positive impact. So one of the things we look at an emerging brand is, “What is their reason to be? What is their why? And is it aligned with our overall mission?”...Also, as we introduce brands to our customers, we want to make sure that they’re sustainable and viable. And so we look at the stability of the brands as well.

The goal of so many emerging brands is just to get into Whole Foods. That’s where it seems the real work begins for those brands.

I talk about that a lot with the emerging brand community because I think so many of them think, “If I meet the right merchant, if I meet the right forager, and if I just get on the shelf, that is the finish line.” While I recognize that that is a very important step in the process, it is really just the starting line, because then as a brand, you have to do the work to get it into customers’ hands, and you have to ensure that it’s so great, they’re going to continue to come back. That takes thinking about things like manufacturing and staying in stock on the shelf and having the best-tasting product and pricing it right and promoting it. I coach a lot of these emerging brands on things like that, because it’s so important to not only getting on the shelf, but staying there over time.

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Is it ever the case that a local brand starts in their local region and only stays there or only finds success in that area?

Absolutely. There are many brands that start on a localized level and stay in a local community. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. Sometimes that is the brand strategy—to stay really focused on one geographic territory and in that local community. Sometimes it’s a category like coffee, where people like to support both their national brands, but also local community coffee shops and coffee brands. So it’s absolutely welcome and appreciated and celebrated.

Do you have any success stories that come to mind of a brand that started small and has kind of expanded beyond that?

One that comes to mind for me is Pacha Soap Company. Pacha was a brand that started in our stores by bringing a bar of soap in a paper bag into one of our Midwest stores…They were originally a recipient of our local producer loan program, which is a program we’ve had since 2006 that lends money to those small-scale local and emerging producers…Over time, given their mission alignment, their impact, their ability to support our growing business and customers’ needs as well as their innovation, they’ve scaled to be a big partner for us.

What are the biggest things brands don't realize when they're getting on the shelf at Whole Foods?

One of the lessons and opportunities is knowing what questions to ask, knowing what goals to set, knowing what milestones are critical. While I call that out as one of the biggest risks…it’s also one of my favorite parts of the natural and organic CPG industry. It’s an industry full of people who legitimately want to help and there are so many mentors who are willing to tell their stories.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.