Waitrose has gone plastic-free on 200 lines in its Botley Road store in Oxford. On day three of the trial, we visit the store to see how it’s going.
After managing to keep it concealed from the media and public for months, Waitrose began its plastic-free “Unpacked” initiative on 3 June. The trial, which will run for 11 weeks until 18 August, is designed to discover how customers might be prepared to shop differently in the future to cut plastic and packaging waste.
Even before you walk into the store, you know about Unpacked, with the logo emblazoned across the fascia. As you enter, there is an elaborate Unpacked display, to give shoppers a flavour of what the project is hoping to achieve.
The trial is being carried out on just 200 lines out of thousands in the 24,600 sq ft store, but the initiative feels store-wide, as the logo and attractive branding is spread out across the store. For example, the Ecover refill station is in the household aisle among other washing-up liquid products.
The fruit and veg aisle is particularly attractive. The majority of packaging has been removed from 160 lines, leaving a colourful array of loose fruit and veg which gives a market-style feel. This is an increasingly familiar sight (Tesco, Morrisons and Aldi have all kicked off plastic-free produce trials with varying intensity) but Waitrose claims it is offering more loose fruit and vegetable lines than any national supermarket.
At @Waitrose to see their “unpacked” trial to remove & reduce #plastic from our supermarket shop - really impressive. Met lots of happy shoppers who say this is what they want. Is this the future? Only if we get on board - & pressure the supermarkets to do the same. #WarOnPlastic pic.twitter.com/POW8xwK7xt— Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (@HughFW) June 4, 2019
Features inside Waitrose Unpacked include:
- A refill station, where customers can fill up on 28 different dry products from Waitrose’s own-brand range, such as pasta, rice, grains, couscous, lentils, cereals, dried fruit and seeds from dispensers.
- Also in the refill area, the store is offering frozen pick and mix, including mango, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, pineapple and raspberries which can be put into refillable containers.
- Wine and beer refillables are also available. Four different wines and four different beers are on tap, manned by “Unpacked advocates”, for customers to take home in reusable bottles, and coffee refills, where customers can grind one of four coffees in store to take home in a reusable container.
- Detergent and washing-up liquid refillables. Waitrose has partnered with Ecover – becoming the first supermarket to do so – to provide an automatic detergent and washing-up liquid dispenser where customers will be able to refill their reusable Ecover containers. Unfortunately this was out of order when we visited, so we weren’t able to try it out.
- Shoppers can borrow a box from the store to shop with and then take home before returning on their next visit. There is also a wide selection of reusable containers available to purchase – from cloth bread bags to glass kilner jars priced from £1.
- Plastic wrap has been removed from all flowers and indoor plants and replaced with 100% recyclable and 100% PEFC-certified craft paper.
- A food preparation “veg kitchen”, where two qualified chefs were available to chop unpackaged fruit and vegetables for customers who need their ingredients prepared. The idea behind this is to cut down on the packaging associated with ready-chopped foods such as carrot batons, chopped onion and courgetti. During its trial, Waitrose hopes to get the chefs preparing full meals for customers.
- A recycling station, where customers can recycle household items like batteries, Brita filters and carrier bags, has been branded with the Unpacked logo.
What we noticed at Waitrose Unpacked:
- Waitrose has had to bulk up shop floor staff numbers to tend to refill stations and help shoppers get the hang of the dispensers, weighing station and coffee grinder. These Unpacked advocates are a combination of new recruits and partners from other stores and have received specific training for this role.
- Thanks to the extra staff, the refill stations were kept scrupulously clean and tidy, and staff were regularly having to refill the dispensers.
- The dispensers filled with dry ingredients are easy to use without too much spillage. However, it is difficult to know how much you’re getting – especially when filling opaque paper bags with product.
- The weighing stations are a little fiddly to use. You have to weigh your container and print a label with a barcode on it. Then you fill your container, weigh it again and scan the barcode on the printed label, then print another label which has the actual price of your product on it. A few customers were having issues with this at the time we were there.
- Staff are having to trust their customers not to steal extra product and, more importantly, containers. As we went to the till to pay for our shopping, we had to point out to the cashier that we needed to pay the £6.00 for our glass kilner jar. It would only take a few dishonest customers to put the store out of pocket.
While in Oxford had to visit Waitrose #unpacked. Great idea which I hope they adopt in all their shops. Just a pity the Ecover refill machine was broken on day 3.— Kate Arnold (@KatefromUK) June 6, 2019
Thankful we don’t have that problem with #Woking weekly pop up refill market stand.
In Botley Road @waitrose having a smackerel of something b4 a singing lesson - hats off to @Waitrose for their #Unpacked initiative. Remains to be seen whether customer take-up means this is rolled out to all branches but kudos to Waitrose for doing whilst others just talk..— Meryl Davies (@Meryl_Davies) June 7, 2019
One of the claims Waitrose makes is that its essential refills are 15% cheaper than its packaged equivalents. When we spoke to a customer (after helping her use one of the weigh stations) she said she didn’t usually shop in Waitrose, but was there to see if the refills really were cheaper. According to her, the loose courgettes weren’t any cheaper than their packaged equivalents in rival supermarkets.
Overall, this is a very well-executed initiative. The branding is great, the staff are enthusiastic, helpful and seem completely on board, and customers, although they were apparently a little hesitant at first, have fully embraced what Waitrose is trying to achieve.
Waitrose is the first to admit Unpacked isn’t perfect, and it may be difficult to roll out in its current state. Getting consumers to change their behaviour is no mean feat, especially as it’s not necessarily convenient for shoppers to have to lug their heavy glass kilner jars, wine bottles and beer growlers down to their local supermarket every time they need to shop. Then there is the risk of queuing at the refill stations. The area isn’t huge and so crowding is likely, especially at peak times.
The trial created a spike in web searches for the term “plastic packaging”
This is not the first time a shop has offered refills on ingredients in this way. Some smaller independent stores, such as Hisbe in Brighton and Thornton’s Budgens in London, have been doing it for a while. But kudos must go to Waitrose for being the first of the mainstream supermarkets to take it this far. The trial has created a real buzz and has so far succeeded in getting customers thinking about plastic packaging.
Waitrose has been gathering customers’ opinions at two feedback stations in store and the majority of this has, so far, been overwhelmingly positive. The only negatives it has received, it tells us, has been that it hasn’t unpacked enough of its products. However, it is still early days.
Whether this approach can realistically be rolled out – across more Waitrose stores and, eventually, all supermarkets – is another matter.