Skip to Content

Notice

Whole Foods Market, Inc.; Analysis of Agreement Containing Consent Orders to Aid Public Comment

Document Details

Information about this document as published in the Federal Register.

Published Document

This document has been published in the Federal Register. Use the PDF linked in the document sidebar for the official electronic format.

Start Preamble

AGENCY:

Federal Trade Commission.

ACTION:

Proposed Consent Agreement.

SUMMARY:

The consent agreement in this matter settles alleged violations of federal law prohibiting unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition. The attached Analysis to Aid Public Comment describes both the allegations in the complaint and the terms of the consent order—embodied in the consent agreement—that would settle these allegations.

DATES:

Comments must be received on or before April 6, 2009.

ADDRESSES:

Interested parties are invited to submit written comments electronically or in paper form. Comments should refer to“Whole Foods Market, Docket No. 9324” to facilitate the organization of comments. Please note that your comment—including your name and your state—will be placed on the public record of this proceeding, including on the publicly accessible FTC website, at (http://www.ftc.gov/​os/​publiccomments.shtm).

Because comments will be made public, they should not include any sensitive personal information, such as an individual’s Social Security Number; date of birth; driver’s license number or other state identification number, or foreign country equivalent; passport number; financial account number; or credit or debit card number. Comments also should not include any sensitive health information, such as medical records or other individually identifiable health information. In addition, comments should not include any “[t]rade secret or any commercial or financial information which is obtained from any person and which is privileged or confidential. . . .,” as provided in Section 6(f) of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. 46(f), and Commission Rule 4.10(a)(2), 16 CFR 4.10(a)(2). Comments containing material for which confidential treatment is requested must be filed in paper form, must be clearly labeled “Confidential,” and must comply with FTC Rule 4.9(c).[1]

Because paper mail addressed to the FTC is subject to delay due to heightened security screening, please consider submitting your comments in electronic form. Comments filed in electronic form should be submitted by using the following weblink: (https://secure.commentworks.com/​ftc-WholeFoodsMarket) (and following the instructions on the web-based form). To ensure that the Commission considers Start Printed Page 10914an electronic comment, you must file it on the web-based form at the weblink:(https://secure.commentworks.com/​ftc-WholeFoodsMarket). If this Notice appears at (http://www.regulations.gov/​search/​index.jsp), you may also file an electronic comment through that website. The Commission will consider all comments that regulations.gov forwards to it. You may also visit the FTC website at http://www.ftc.gov to read the Notice and the news release describing it.

A comment filed in paper form should include the “Whole Foods Market, Inc., Docket No. 9324“ reference both in the text and on the envelope, and should be mailed or delivered to the following address: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Room H-135, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580. The FTC is requesting that any comment filed in paper form be sent by courier or overnight service, if possible, because U.S. postal mail in the Washington area and at the Commission is subject to delay due to heightened security precautions.

The Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTC Act”) and other laws the Commission administers permit the collection of public comments to consider and use in this proceeding as appropriate. The Commission will consider all timely and responsive public comments that it receives, whether filed in paper or electronic form. Comments received will be available to the public on the FTC website, to the extent practicable, at (http://www.ftc.gov/​os/​publiccomments.shtm). As a matter of discretion, the Commission makes every effort to remove home contact information for individuals from the public comments it receives before placing those comments on the FTC website. More information, including routine uses permitted by the Privacy Act, may be found in the FTC’s privacy policy, at (http://www.ftc.gov/​ftc/​privacy.shtm).

Start Further Info

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Albert Y. Kim, Bureau of Competition, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580, (202) 326-2952.

End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Pursuant to section 6(f) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 38 Stat. 721, 15 U.S.C. 46(f), and § 3.25(f) the Commission Rules of Practice, 16 CFR 3.25(f), notice is hereby given that the above-captioned consent agreement containing a consent order to cease and desist, having been filed with and accepted, subject to final approval, by the Commission, has been placed on the public record for a period of thirty (30) days. The following Analysis to Aid Public Comment describes the terms of the consent agreement, and the allegations in the complaint. An electronic copy of the full text of the consent agreement package can be obtained from the FTC Home Page (for March 6, 2009), on the World Wide Web, at (http://www.ftc.gov/​os/​2009/​03/​index.htm). A paper copy can be obtained from the FTC Public Reference Room, Room 130-H, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580, either in person or by calling (202) 326-2222.

Public comments are invited, and may be filed with the Commission in either paper or electronic form. All comments should be filed as prescribed in the ADDRESSES section above, and must be received on or before the date specified in the DATES section.

Analysis of Agreement Containing Consent Order to Aid Public Comment

I. INTRODUCTION

The Federal Trade Commission (“Commission”) has accepted, subject to final approval, an Agreement Containing Consent Orders (“Consent Agreement”) from Whole Foods Market, Inc. (“Whole Foods”). The purpose of the proposed Consent Agreement is to remedy the competitive harm resulting from Whole Foods’ acquisition of Wild Oats Markets, Inc. (“Wild Oats”), completed on or about August 28, 2007. Under the terms of the proposed Consent Agreement, Whole Foods is required to maintain and subsequently divest a significant portion of the Wild Oats assets at issue in this matter.

The proposed Consent Agreement has been placed on the public record for thirty days to solicit comments from interested persons. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After thirty days, the Commission again will review the proposed Consent Agreement and the comments received, and decide whether it should withdraw the Consent Agreement or make it final.

The sole purpose of this analysis is to facilitate public comment on the Consent Agreement; it is not intended to constitute an official interpretation of the Consent Agreement or modify its terms in any way.

II. BACKGROUND

On February 21, 2007, Whole Foods and Wild Oats publicly announced that they had executed a merger agreement pursuant to which Whole Foods would acquire Wild Oats in a transaction valued at about $700 million. At the time of the merger announcement, Whole Foods (headquartered in Austin, Texas) and Wild Oats (headquartered in Boulder, Colorado) were the only national operators of premium natural and organic supermarkets (“PNOS”) in the United States. Whole Foods operated 194 stores in more than 37 states and the District of Columbia as well as the United Kingdom, and Wild Oats maintained 74 PNOS stores in 24 states.[2]

Wild Oats and Whole Foods offered a unique selection of natural and organic products, amenities, and high levels of customer service that differentiated them from conventional supermarkets, mass merchants, and other categories of food retailers. The combination of Whole Foods and Wild Oats would provide Whole Foods with market power post-acquisition in the PNOS market, leading to significant anticompetitive effects. Staff’s investigation confirmed that repositioning by existing competitors or new entry would be inadequate to deter or counteract this harm to competition.

Having reason to believe the proposed transaction would result in competitive harm, the Commission authorized staff to seek a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) and preliminary injunctive relief in federal district court and to commence an administrative trial under Part 3 of the Commission’s Rules of Practice. Both the district court and administrative complaints alleged that the combined company would increase prices, and decrease the quality and number of offered services, if the merger were permitted to close.

III. LITIGATION HISTORY

On June 6, 2007, the Commission filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to seek a TRO and a preliminary injunction against the acquisition. The court granted the TRO on June 7, 2007. On June 28, 2007, the Commission issued an administrative complaint pursuant to Part 3 of its Rules. Given the proceedings in the collateral federal district court case, the Commission, as a matter of discretion, stayed the Part 3 action in an order issued on August 7, 2007.

After a two-day hearing on July 31 and August 1, 2007, the district court denied the Commission’s motion for a preliminary injunction on August 16, 2007. On August 17, 2007, the Start Printed Page 10915Commission filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit a notice of appeal and an emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal. Although the D.C. Circuit initially denied the Commission’s emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal, on July 29, 2008, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s opinion and found that the Commission had demonstrated the requisite likelihood of success in the preliminary injunction proceeding, and remanded the matter to the district court to address the equities and, if necessary, fashion appropriate relief.[3] Approximately one week later, on August 8, 2008, the Commission lifted the stay of the Part 3 proceedings, and the Commission issued an amended administrative complaint on September 8, 2008. The amended complaint alleged anticompetitive effects in 22 overlap markets (in which Whole Foods and Wild Oats competed head-to-head) and seven potential competition markets (in which Whole Foods had planned to enter but for the merger).

On January 8, 2009, the district court issued a written order and opinion holding that the issue of likelihood of success had been fully resolved in the Commission’s favor by the court of appeals, and confirming that all that remained was to weigh the equities and impose relief, if necessary.

On January 26, 2009, Whole Foods filed a motion to withdraw the matter from administrative litigation, together with a settlement agreement. The Commission granted Whole Foods’ motion on January 29, 2009, and temporarily withdrew the matter from administrative adjudication. The withdrawal was subsequently extended until March 6, 2009, as Whole Foods and Commission staff negotiated a remedy in settlement of the ongoing litigation.

IV. POST-ACQUISITION INTEGRATION

The acquired Wild Oats assets included stores operating under the Wild Oats banner as well as a number of leases for Wild Oats stores that were closed prior to the acquisition.[4] After the district court’s August 16, 2007 decision denying the Commission’s request for a preliminary injunction, Whole Foods consummated its acquisition of Wild Oats and began integrating certain of the acquired Wild Oats assets, rebranding Wild Oats stores, closing other Wild Oats locations, and terminating certain leases.

In the 18 months since the close of the transaction, Whole Foods has closed a number of Wild Oats stores. Whole Foods has maintained leases and physical assets relating to some, but not all, of the closed Wild Oats locations. Within the 29 geographic markets alleged in the complaint, Whole Foods is currently operating 31 former Wild Oats stores and is maintaining control of 19 formerly operating Wild Oats stores.

V. THE PROPOSED CONSENT AGREEMENT

In order to remedy, to a significant degree, the anticompetitive effects of the transaction, the Commission has entered into the attached Consent Agreement with Whole Foods, which requires the divestiture of 32 stores, along with associated Wild Oats intellectual property and related assets, leases, properties, and government permits.[5] The Order to Maintain Assets will require Whole Foods to maintain the operating status of the open stores, and maintain all leases (open and dark stores) until divestiture is complete. See Appendix A.

The inclusion of the Wild Oats intellectual property is an important component of the package. The intellectual property includes the use, without restriction, of the Wild Oats name. Even months after the acquisition, the Wild Oats brand name retains significant brand equity that has been developed over the past 20 years.

As shown in Appendices A & B of the Decision and Order, Whole Foods is required to divest a significant portion of the acquired and currently operating stores, and all of the formerly operating stores for which leases still exist. These planned divestitures will offer relief in 17 of the 29 geographic markets alleged in the amended administrative complaint, eliminating Whole Foods’ monopoly position in these markets, and permitting consumers to once again enjoy the benefits of competition between PNOS operators. These stores also could provide a springboard from which the acquirer(s) can expand into additional geographic markets.

The proposed order provides that the responsibility for the marketing and sale of the assets to be divested will immediately be put in the hands of the divestiture trustee.[6] The trustee will have six months within which to divest the stores and related assets to a buyer or buyers approved by the Commission. If the trustee has received good faith offers from potential acquirers for certain stores within the initial six-month divestiture period, the Commission may extend the divestiture period for those stores for up to an additional six months. The requirement that any potential acquirer be approved by the Commission is designed to ensure that the potential acquirer(s) intends to put the divested assets, including the stores and the Wild Oats brand, to use in the relevant product market in competition with Whole Foods.

VI. OTHER PROVISIONS OF THE CONSENT AGREEMENT

The Consent Agreement contains several additional provisions designed to ensure that competition is, in fact, replicated in the targeted geographic markets. As referenced above, the Consent Agreement requires appointment of a divestiture trustee to oversee the process for divesting the Wild Oats assets. The Food Partners (“TFP”) has been appointed to fill this role. TFP is one of the leading investment banking firms in the food retailing industry, with particular expertise in mergers, acquisition, and divestiture services. TFP has advised on a number of supermarket sales and acquisitions, including divesting packages of geographically dispersed national chain supermarkets. For these reasons, TFP is well-suited to serve as divestiture trustee in this matter.

The Consent Agreement also includes an Order to Maintain Assets (“OMA”), which requires Whole Foods to continue to operate the Wild Oats stores until a buyer is identified and approved by the Commission and final closing of the purchase occurs. Because of concerns about possible deterioration of the stores during the divestiture period, the OMA further provides for the appointment of an interim monitor to ensure that Whole Foods maintains the viability, marketability, and competitiveness of the assets and does Start Printed Page 10916not terminate the operation of any store included in the divestiture package.

VII. POST-CONSUMMATION RELIEF

The absence of pre-consummation relief from the district court, and Whole Foods’ subsequent integration activities, have made it more difficult for the Commission to obtain complete relief in this matter. However, the proposed Consent Agreement will provide substantial relief to consumers in 17 geographic markets across the United States. Moreover, acceptance of the proposed Consent Agreement will bring immediate, certain relief and avoid the expense and uncertainty inherent in continued litigation. Reestablishing a PNOS competitor in these markets under the Wild Oats banner will reintroduce direct price, quality, and service competition in these areas, restoring to a substantial degree the competition that was eliminated by the acquisition, providing important benefits to consumers, and perhaps creating a springboard for broader competition nationwide.

By direction of the Commission.

Start Signature

Donald S. Clark

Secretary

End Signature End Supplemental Information

Footnotes

1. FTC Rule 4.2(d), 16 CFR 4.2(d). The comment must be accompanied by an explicit request for confidential treatment, including the factual and legal basis for the request, and must identify the specific portions of the comment to be withheld from the public record. The request will be granted or denied by the Commission’s General Counsel, consistent with applicable law and the public interest. See FTC Rule 4.9(c), 16 CFR 4.9(c).

Back to Citation

2. Wild Oats also operated stores under the Henry’s Farmers Market banner (in Southern California), the Sun Harvest banner (in Texas), and the Capers Community Market banner (in British Columbia, Canada).

Back to Citation

3. Following Whole Foods’ August 26, 2008 petition for rehearing en banc in the court of appeals, the D.C. Circuit denied the petition and reissued the court’s judgment on November 21, 2008. The two judges of the panel majority reissued opinions that reiterated their respective rationales for concluding that the Commission had carried its burden of showing a likelihood of success on the merits and that the district court should conduct an equities analysis to determine whether an injunction should issue.

Back to Citation

4. Immediately following the closing, on September, 30, 2007, Whole Foods sold the Henry’s and Sun Harvest stores that Wild Oats had been operating to Smart & Final Inc., a Los Angeles-based food retailer.

Back to Citation

5. Of the 32 stores, 13 are live stores and 19 are “dark” stores. Dark stores are former Wild Oats stores that are not presently operating, but are under the control of Whole Foods.

Back to Citation

6. Pursuant to the proposed Consent Agreement, although the divestiture of the stores may be made to one or more Commission-approved buyers, the Wild Oats-associated intellectual property may be divested to only a single buyer.

Back to Citation

[FR Doc. E9-5519 Filed 3-12-09: 8:45 am]

[BILLING CODE 6750-01-S]