What happened when Waitrose trialled a packaging-free zone in-store?

Rosie Howells
Waitrose HERO

For the past few years, grocery packaging, and plastics in particular, has been the sustainability-related topic that our customers ask us about more than any other. It’s captured the hearts and minds of the UK shopper. They want retailers to eliminate excess packaging and help them shop using less or no packaging at all.

At Waitrose, packaging plays an important role in protecting our products and preventing food waste. It’s also incredibly important in maintaining the quality of our products. Of course, we want to minimise the impact that the packaging has on the environment and have been working on this for many years. Over 85% of our packaging is already widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable and this will be 100% by 2023. We’re also innovating in alternative materials like fibre-based ready meal trays, tomato punnets made from waste tomato leaves and homecompostable films.

However, improving our existing packaging is only one part of our strategy. We want to provide customers with new ways to shop that make refilling and reusing possible. This is the best way to reduce waste.

That’s why, in June 2019, we launched our ‘Unpacked’ test, starting in one shop, our Botley Road branch in Oxford. We removed more than 200 products from their packaging to test how customers might be prepared to shop differently, with the aim of saving thousands of tonnes of unnecessary plastic.

We want to provide customers with new ways to shop that make refilling and reusing possible

The concepts involved loose fruit and veg, an everyday refillables zone, frozen pick and mix, wine and beer on tap and refillable Ecover products. An important part of the test was making sure that the products were the same price or cheaper than their packaged alternatives.

Unpacked launched with really impactful branding, dedicated ambassadors and extra signage. It was essential that customers understood about the test, got behind it and, most importantly, had the opportunity to give feedback on what worked well, what didn’t and how it could be improved.

In the first nine weeks of the test, more than 7,000 customers provided comments through our in-store feedback wall, customer interviews, dedicated website page and social media. Walking round the shop, there was a real energy with customers bringing in all sorts of containers to buy rice, lentils, muesli and dried fruit. Our Partners (employees) got behind the test too, quickly getting to grips with the new processes that we put in place and helping customers try the different concepts.

Waitrose unpacked refill station

Unpacked in Cheltenham store © Waitrose & Partners

The customer feedback was incredible and, as a result, we extended Unpacked in Oxford and introduced it to three more shops – in Cheltenham, Abingdon and Wallingford – towards the end of last year.

Right now, we’re in the test phase and are working with our customers to really understand which packaging is unnecessary and which we need to keep. We’re also working with our suppliers to learn and develop which ideas have the potential to be rolled out more widely. We’re continuing our environmental analysis to quantify the environmental benefits associated with the different concepts taking into account packaging waste, carbon and food waste.

This approach is not only different for customers, it’s different for us as retailers and for our suppliers too. What we now know is that many customers really enjoy bringing in their own containers and minimising the packaging waste they have to manage and sort at home.

We’re so pleased with how the first phase has gone and are excited about what we can achieve over the coming years if we work together.