Whole Foods
A Whole Foods store in Houston. Business Insider
  • Whole Foods’ corporate office has started requiring stores to leave shelves empty when they run out of products as part of its new inventory management system called order-to-shelf, or OTS.
  • The company defends this practice in internal documents reviewed by Business Insider, saying it helps ensure out-of-stock items will get reordered.
  • Employees say it makes stores look sloppy and empty.
  • “The inefficiency was appalling, and the blow to our professionalism demoralizing,” Julia Rogers, who left her post at Whole Foods in November, said of OTS.

Whole Foods stores across the country are suffering from product shortages that are leading to empty shelves.

In the past, if a Whole Foods store ran out of a specific product, employees would fill the hole on the shelf by putting another item — typically one of the store’s top sellers — in its place. The grocery industry calls this practice a “face over” or “re-facing.”

That way, even when stores are short on products, the shelves still appear well-stocked and organized.

But under an inventory system called order-to-shelf, or OTS, Whole Foods has banned that practice — leaving what one employee described as “gaping holes” on store shelves.

“Never ‘face over’ or cover holes,” the company instructs employees in a 42-page internal manual reviewed by Business Insider. The document describes standard operating procedures for order-to-shelf. The system also bans the use of “temporarily out” tags, it says.

“Temporarily out tags are often inaccurate and clutters shelves,” the manual states. Employees “can communicate with customers on status of product rather than a tag.”

The manual explains why employees should leave holes empty, saying it “helps ensure that OOS [out-of-stock] items get reordered because hole is visible, increases the likelihood that OOS [out-of-stock] items will return to in-stock position when available, eliminates confusion for both customers and [employees],” and “makes stock position obvious to customers, [employees], and store leadership.”

Employees say the system makes stores look sloppy and empty.

“OTS forbids employees from temporarily re-facing shelves to make out-of-stocks less visually glaring,” said Julia Rogers, who cited OTS as the reason for leaving her job an employee at a Toronto Whole Foods in November. “Admittedly there is nothing to be done when an entire produce set — like the lettuce wall — is out of stock, but…