The Refill Coalition’s first standardised dispenser system trial, at an Aldi store in Solihull, is already ‘exceeding’ expectations in terms of logistics and sales. Can it be made to work at scale?

At first glance, it would be easy to think Aldi Solihull was your standard store. But at the back, between bakery and biscuits, its point of difference emerges. Here lies a system that is tipped to pave the way for the industry’s green efforts: The Refill Coalition’s first standardised dispenser system.

Landing in October, it marked a major milestone for The Refill Coalition, which currently consists of refill consultancy GoUnpackaged, retailers Aldi and Ocado, and logistics provider CHEP.

Six months in, the trial – which is using funding from Innovate UK – is “exceeding” sales expectations and has just rolled out to a second Aldi store in Leamington Spa. Further installations are planned this year, and a home delivery version is also set to launch with Ocado.

The basic concept was this: to create a refillable vessel that can be filled by different manufacturers, transported to and installed in stores, then refilled at scale.

It may sound simple enough, but it was a “hard problem to solve” admits Helen Clements, director at GoUnpackaged. The Aldi site showcases the coalition’s solution, which is the result of three years of development: a plastic vessel with an estimated lifecycle of 60 uses, plus a modular dispenser system that can be easily integrated into aisles.

False fronts allow Aldi to advertise the product – in this case, breakfast cereal – in a way that keeps it fresh and visually appealing. Customers can either bring their own container, use a provided paper bag or buy a reusable plastic container.

Once they’ve weighed their container, they receive a printed barcode that includes the price and ingredients. E-weight sensors ensure the product selected matches the one poured to avoid shrinkage. Once empty, vessels are replaced by staff and then stored in the stockroom on roll cages. CHEP then collects, cleans and transports the containers to manufacturers for refilling.

That’s the major benefit for retailers, says Clements, as it circumvents the need for the clean room often required for typical refill systems.

The Ocado trial will work on the same principles, and will extend to household liquids. Customers will receive their goods as part of their standard delivery and then return them to the driver with their next order.

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Long-term questions

The early signs in Aldi are certainly positive. However, long-term questions remain over the viability of refill at scale. In November 2023, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggested a large-scale reuse scheme would need to achieve as much as 40% market share to see a significant benefit in GHG emissions reduction compared with single-use packaging.

Then there’s competition from other systems. M&S has partnered with Reposit to roll out a prefill system for household products, which involves a £2 deposit that is refunded when containers are returned to store.

On the latter front, Clements isn’t worried. “These are not competing systems,” she says. She is keen to see a wider ecosystem of reuse, particularly for dried goods.

And in terms of viability, Clements is going after scale. This is something that has often been missing from previous attempts – after all, M&S CEO Stuart Machin cited waning customer interest as a key reason behind its previous abandonment of refill.

For Clements, whose background is in advertising, education is the best way to encourage uptake. The Aldi system has screens that explain the process and how much packaging is being saved.

At the latest Leamington launch, ceiling banners and shelf labels located next to regular boxed cereals ask customers if they’d care to “swap to refill”, which is “always a better price than packaged”.

That price aspect is another key draw. In previous systems, refills were sometimes even pricier than packaged goods. GoUnpackaged is conducting a peer-reviewed lifecycle analysis to determine the true cost of the scheme, and Clements is certain that at scale, it will be cheaper than a typical packaged system.

The key thing is communicating these benefits – and the ethos – to customers. “You can’t just install a system and hope they will come,” she sums up. “People need to know the ‘why’.”