Applications can be completed online through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). This link is for the GSAS home page: http://gsas.nyu.edu/object/grad.admissions.onlineapp. From here, click on the Application Resource Center link for the online application and GSAS application guide.
Note: The I/O program also requires a supplemental case study which is typically posted 60 days prior to the due date, below.
For Spring and Summer admission: October 1
For Fall admission: January 15
Note: Given the extremely competitive nature of the I/O program, serious consideration of the most qualified applicants may result in offers being extended beginning one month post-deadline.
The I/O Information Session is an opportunity to hear from the Program Coordinator about the details of the program, ask questions, and meet students and alumni of the program. For information about the I/O Information Session schedule and how to RSVP, click here: http://psych.nyu.edu/programs/ma/openhouse.html.
Supplemental I/O Application Question (required for all applicants)
Below is the required supplemental case study for the Spring and Summer 2016 applications (October 1, 2015 deadline).
The NYU I/O Psychology M.A. Program requires a case study. This supplemental document provides an opportunity for applicants to put Psychology and Science into practice (as expected in the program). It represents a realistic preview of how one might be engaged to drive consultative intervention aimed at improving conditions for employers and employees alike.
This is a business case that asks you to write about the company, Whole Foods Market, from an I/O Psychology vantage point. In addition, it will allow for the inclusion of personal strengths, key background experiences, and personal perspective. Include personal challenges, priorities, goals, and achievements that might bear on candidacy for admission to the program. Bring your own history, previous studies, business experiences, and interests into focus to address the real-world human capital challenges and opportunities that the case presents.
Whole Foods Market Case
Background Summary / Business Conditions
As the largest purveyor of natural organic foods in North America, Whole Foods Market Inc. (stock ticker WFM) holds a special place in the minds of consumers looking for local and sustainable green produce. It is the first Certified Organic Grocer in the U.S.
Who wouldn’t feel guilty, or compelled to buy, “healthier” food, devoid of chemical preservatives, growth hormones, antibiotics, and even animal cruelty, if equivalent product were available at relatively equally affordable prices? Values and value is the mix sold / marketed by Whole Foods.
Whole Foods Market began in 1978 as a small niche health food grocery distributor with just one small store in Austin, Texas. It prided itself on being a little outside the norm, popular with an aging hippie population and vegetarians as signified by the popular local slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” In a sea of conservative stronghold, Austin developed rapidly as a liberal bastion, and an escape from traditional values. Whole Foods capitalized.
Out of this broader social movement, Austin also developed a highly educated and often under employed labor pool, luring transplants from much more expensive urban locations elsewhere. Companies followed suit luring hires with a low cost of housing, good schools, and no state income tax. Quality of living became a focus, and Whole Foods Market fit in with the notion of “a good life.”
Times have changed markedly, and some of the more “radical” views have come to be the sensibilities and sentiments expressed by a growing proportion of society. “Going Green” has, perhaps, become more the norm.
Accordingly, Whole Foods Market has grown exponentially with 422 locations across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. employing some 90,000 team members. Fortune magazine has identified the firm among the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”
Overall, Whole Foods amassed $14.2 billion in sales in fiscal year 2014 (ended in September), representing 10% growth year over year. Each store is comprised of some 30,000 individual products, and the company earns approximately $37 million on average in revenues. Perishable products represent a competitive advantage, and a much higher concentration at Whole Foods (approximately 66%) vs. traditional grocers where there might be as little as 20% or less.
Although, scientifically, produce may not test out to be technically any more nutritious or “healthy” than in the common grocery store. Whole Foods Market wants foodies and moms everywhere to connect with the notion that everyone ought to eat better quality food. Be careful what you ingest, so to be sure, shop at Whole Foods Market.
Good food turns out to be a lucrative business venture as well, when many organic items can extract a premium price just by being sold as an equivalent product raised without pesticide.
It is estimated that 15% of all customer spend on groceries goes toward health food categories. Of a roughly $600 billion market in supermarkets overall, roughly $90 billion goes for natural and healthy products alone. That tally is increasing in proportion as well.
Those willing to endorse the cause have been willing to pay up for the benefit in what they believe important. Whole Foods Market has been able to build inroads with unique brands and label loyalty. Approximately 12% of the products sold in the Whole Foods Market represent private-label items. Private-label products and in store brands increase margins.
The average store holds approximately 38,000 square feet, with potential growth suggesting upwards of 1,000 total stores possible before saturation. Therefore, new store additions and new market penetration still have vast potential to reward shareholders and add employees.
In contrast, many traditional supermarkets in the U.S. and the U.K have stagnated or faltered. Growth has been forged out of a raised appreciation for the Whole Food Market philosophical ideal. Generally, what may have begun as a sort of fringe concept, has really caught on over time. Whole Foods Market has attracted higher quality educated labor, and vibrant, younger millennial talent to roles more frequently associated with low-skilled, blue-collar labor union roles. Much like baristas for Starbucks, Whole Foods has elevated certified fishmongers and cheese technicians to craft workers.
The future has looked very bright for Whole Foods before some recent setbacks. Initially, regulators in California in 2014 claimed that Whole Foods routinely overcharged customers. A settlement forced Whole Foods to pay huge fines and comply with necessary improvements.
Unfortunately, recently, the firm was hit with a similar accusations in New York and repeated press reports of egregious mistakes and huge overcharges. Though the California concerns might have been an individual fluke (as other stores also get some fines), the repeat in New York raised the specter of possibility that it was a common practice.
Prior to this current scandal, stock analysts anticipated Whole Foods store sales totals would increase almost 10% in 2015. These estimates may need to be revised downward if lack of confidence causes shoppers to refrain from purchasing. Weaker consumer demand would, in turn, impact staffing and career growth opportunities for staff.
Historically, the company had benefitted from the public perception of the firm being forward looking, with leading-edge values, and commitment to staff and the products. The culture was heralded by many as representing “a better place to work.” Labor that might never have considered working at a traditional grocery store signed on for the mission and the aura.
Now, the company agreed to a five-year injunction requiring accurate pricing, increased monitoring of pricing practices, and random audits in relation to the California infractions. It might appear haphazard and errant business practice that those lessons learned in California were not taken seriously, nor applied to the New York market.
To be fair, some of the overages at Whole Foods have also happened at other stores at times. The fact that the customer also on occasion benefitted from incorrect lower pricing offsets the consumer perception that they were intentionally misled.
In any case, a lot of change may be necessary. The firm has taken steps to enlist customers to price-check and offers refunds if mistakes are made or to even provide free purchases to show good faith. However, this will eat into revenue, and customers may not see it as their job to get around unfair pricing by alerting staff who are supposed to know better.
Large broader retailers such as Costco, Target and Walmart have expanded their healthy and organic offerings. They hope to capitalize on more one-stop shopping while customers pick up other non-related items like clothing, home goods, or school supplies.
Traditional grocery chain competitors have also noticed WFM’s growth rates and tried to adapt their own merchandise, and sales promotions. This increased competition will certainly put pressure to fend off customer flight risk (as a decided separate stop necessary for organic foods).
WFM’s rampant growth, new store openings, and lucrative career advancements may go on hold, as have the advisory recommendations of some stock analysts urging caution with the rising uncertainty. Leaders and managers will need to find both practical and technical solutions to the accuracy in weighing and pricing concerns, and also to morale and work climate challenges.
Those most proud to have been working for a company doing good, may not see the firm in the same light going forward given shifting public perceptions of negligence, overcharging, and suspicions of intentional wrongdoing. Whether from carelessness, lack of attention to detail, or faulty technology, customers may believe they are getting a raw deal.
Whole Foods Market leaders will need to move quickly and assertively to regroup and recharge their efforts, rebuilding employee and customer trust. It won’t be easy.
Employee Values / Vision / and Loyalty Adjustment
Whole Foods Market has a long and significant association with what might be characterized as going above and beyond to deliver better outcomes: doing well by doing good, ethical choices over quick profits, charity, well-being, environmental stewardship, giving back.
The organization historically set up a credo and enlisted employee endorsement to a platform aligned with the mission and vision. Ideals such as animal welfare, environmental protection, and community involvement, local farming association, and farm to table represent fundamental beliefs instilled in employees.
This mantra then transcends to the customer experience in a special relationship between staff and shopper surrounding food origin, growing methods, quality indications, and freshness. Values matter.
Hires buying into WFM philosophy and beliefs had enhanced loyalty and generally low turnover. Once in the door, many employees found Whole Foods a great place to work – where others thought, acted, and ate in similar ways. The culture proffered community beyond simple employment relationship.
When times were hard, everyone pitched in. Team leaders were on the floor and visible much of the time doing things that highlighted their commitment, service, vision, and values, day to day, beside the front-line workers. Staff felt they were part of something unique and special.
Recent accusations, regulator admonishments, and customer jokes surrounding “Whole Paycheck” as the fundamental nature of the enterprise rip into the cultural fabric of the firm. Pride in company with family and friends is harder to sell. Maybe, it is just a job, and, perhaps, senior management has become too focused on profit and too far from the intent.
New recruits will certainly have encountered a layer of publicity suggesting concern or caution. Internal HR programs will be forced to be adapted to recognize, acknowledge and attend to the criticisms raised. Employee commitment will need to be re-established. The company must combat public perception, and rebuild the brand and customer trust.
CEO apologies are an important first step, but certainly only the beginning for rebuilding engagement and trust. Initially denying allegations, and suddenly reversing under pressure to acknowledge hasn’t helped in the eyes of staff or customers -- let alone shareholders.
Leadership and Management Reorientation
Careful and considered consistency will need to be institutionalized. Process steps, checks, and evaluation mechanisms must be strengthened. Heightened awareness and action will be needed in each and every store. Management must ensure that mistakes are not repeated going forward.
Under increased scrutiny, Whole Foods Market will need to reorient executives toward addressing the public perceptions and the actual inaccuracies. Increased regulator checks will add burden on staffing and headcount to ensure compliance. New reporting mechanisms, internal procedures, and tactical protocols will have to be invented and adopted system-wide to ensure successful outcomes across the firm store to store.
It will be critical that senior executives avoid a culture of blame but instill a culture of solutions and improvements. Under pressure to raise revenues and cut corners, new social norms and performance expectations must take hold.
Additional meetings, review sessions, and burden will sit squarely on the shoulders of those near the top. Intentional and unintentional turnover may result or may need to be initiated, depending on actions or practices found as related to customer and regulator complaints.
Management and leaders at Whole Foods will need to do a better and different job to reverse regulators’ findings. It will be harder for management, and they will be under pressure to work quickly and constantly to revamp their processes, supervise staff, and delegate responsibilities accordingly.
Working Conditions and Employee Morale
Cashiers, department managers, and sales associates will all come under increased scrutiny and pressures to adapt and improve. Regular checks and secret shoppers will be sent as part of the settlement to raise accuracy in pricing and weight in packaging. This may create a cultural impact of staff reaction to second-guessing, accusations, and denigration from customers.
Leaders will be expected to deliver better consistency, calibration, and audit procedures. This pressure on their part will trickle down to individual staff members. To compensate, if staff must now even just adjust to include container weights, it may require some calculation adjustment, new or better equipment, and technology to factor-in various weights of containers. Staff may need to learn alternative procedures, or could be required to have additional skills and abilities.
Potential for advancement, and reward incentives may be more limited moving forward, or at least temporarily. Individual stores may struggle to show increased sales growth which will burden employees to increase sales, yet decrease product loss for perishables. Loss of revenue may occur with more accurate weighing and pricing.
Overall, Whole Foods Market has a rough patch ahead. They will need intervention, assistance, and guidance to emerge once again as a leading organization with a growth profile. You have been asked to intervene to assist the firm and the employees to figure out what to do, when, and how.
Case Study Guidelines:
Write a 1,500 word case study describing how you might advise and help Whole Foods Market. Information within the firm and corporate response to external inquiries has been perceived as less than fully forthcoming or timely. The problems of overcharging and public perceptions of trustworthiness need to be addressed on multiple levels including operations, technology, employee engagement, leadership, morale, and commitment – and put into the larger context of a global economy and grocery environment that is increasingly regulatory.
Specifically, what are the major areas of concern you have about the situation at Whole Foods in terms of the challenges resulting from the multiple instances of apparent overcharging in the current business context? What data might be gathered and analyzed to understand Whole Foods’ concerns and the viability of potential solutions? What might be involved to address staff concerns? In what ways might the issues parallel those for other companies now under public scrutiny vs. those springing uniquely from this specific situation, leadership, and staff at Whole Foods?
In what ways might leadership positioning and the relationships with employees improve? What benefits might be gained by suggested consultative intervention at Whole Foods? What risks or downsides might need to be avoided?
What tradeoffs need to be evaluated? How might individual staff, work teams, and the overarching organization as a whole be involved to understand what went wrong? How could successful change be measured? What might indicate that the intervention had addressed the most important problems needing to be addressed? What might a realistic practical business solution involve and entail?
From a personal and professional development perspective, what components from previous training, education, and work experience would help you to investigate, inform and improve the situation for Whole Foods? Why might you personally be the best candidate to address these issues? What personal strengths, skills and special abilities could be utilized so as to be selected in competition to earn this assignment? How might taking on this assignment through the NYU I/O Psychology program address your professional development and career aspirations?
Your case study must be unique and an original work of your own creation. The document submitted must not exceed 1,500 words. The work should be solely of your own writing and ideas. Content beyond 1,500 words will not be considered. As science, parsimony is key. You may cite research or other’s ideas by including explicit references for any external resources paraphrased or copied from other sources.
Evidence that this case study has quoted material or ideas lifted without proper reference or written by third parties will result in application rejection. This work is designed to personally engage and reflect your understanding of models of psychology, business, science, analytical methods, and your professional development goals in the service of applied problem solving. Therefore, minimize restating the problem and information given in the prompt, and focus on your value-added ideas: prioritizing, ordering, and answering questions and providing solutions.
In addition, prepare a brief video overview of your ideas and interventions to upload. In your video, you are delivering a presentation to professional colleagues summarizing your essay and ideas on the Whole Foods situation. This video must be added as a URL to your application. Please read the instructions for “Submitting a Video” with your application.
For further investigation of the overcharging circumstances, you may find some or all of the following sources a good starting point. They are accessible online or at a local university or public library. You may also want to consider other reference books, magazines, journal articles, or business sources to inform your thinking about I/O Psychology and the particular issues involved within the Whole Foods Market case.
Recent relevant media references:
Whole Foods Is Paying $800,000 For Overcharging in California. Shan Li, Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2014 (television station KCAL video clip link from local news report).
Whole Foods Investigated For Overcharging, Again. Clark Wolf. July 6, 2015. Forbes.
Whole Foods Co-CEOs Admit to Overcharging Customers. Huffington Post. Joe Satran. July 2, 2015.
Whole Foods Accused of Overcharging in New York City Stores. Stephanie Strom. New York Times. June 24, 2015.
Whole Foods Accused of Overcharging by Exaggerating Weight of Packaged Foods, Officials Say. Susanna Kim. ABC News. June 24, 2015.
Addressing Weight and Pricing: A Message to Our Customers. June 29, 2015. Whole Story: The Official Whole Foods Market Blog (Video Post from Whole Foods Co-CEOs).
Whole Foods: New Value Chain to be Called ‘365 by Whole Foods Market.’ Claudia Grisales. Austin American Statesman. June 11, 2015.
Whole Foods to try new format as growth slows: New smaller stores will seek younger shoppers who want lower prices. Claudia Grisales. Austin American Statesman. May 7, 2015: B.5.
For more information about applying to the I/O program call 212-998-7920