Legumes and rice in bowls

Grocery refill stations – will Waitrose’s trial be successful?

The fight against plastic pollution has put pressure on supermarkets to reduce packaging, mostly resulting in more loose fruit and vegetables being made available. Waitrose has recently made a further step in this direction, attempting to spark a refill culture among mainstream shoppers. The supermarket chain has chosen a store in Oxford for an 11-week trial in which customers can fill their own containers with groceries, rather than buying packaged products.

As part of the campaign, Waitrose’s Botley Road store in Oxford offers a wide range of products for shoppers to refill their own containers with. In-store interviews, conducted by the BBC, have highlighted positive initial reactions to the overall idea. However, it is likely that some product categories will be more successful than others, especially in an eventual nationwide launch of the format.

In order to establish the most likely winners and losers we ran a multi-answer steer, asking our consumer community which products they would buy from a refill station at a supermarket. From the results obtained, we determined the mean based on which we calculated the likelihood of purchase in each product category:

Pasta, cereal, and rice are the top three categories, with consumers more likely to make refill purchases. Being basic everyday staples, these products could potentially make a difference if sold packaging-free. ‘Loose fruit and vegetables’ is fourth, which is not a surprise, considering that most supermarkets have been making an effort to promote packaging-free options in the segment.

Accepting 5% above the mean as a cut off point in consumers’ willingness to use a refill service for a type of product, we think that the remaining categories are not yet ripe for grocery refill services. Certainly this could change in future with shoppers becoming more familiar with the format and its environmental benefits.

To reward shoppers for making an effort for the cause, Waitrose is offering a 15% discount on unpackaged products. Additionally, the refill format gives consumers the opportunity to buy as much or as little as they need. While the purpose of Waitrose’s refill campaign is promoting sustainability, its customers could also be influenced by other factors. To establish whether this is the case, we ran a single-answer steer, giving our consumer community four options, including ‘None of these’ to account for possible rejecters:

44% of consumers pointed out that packaging reduction was their main motive, while 35% made the 15% discount their single choice. The discount offered makes a difference for a substantial part of the community. The likely rejecters of refill services, choosing ‘None of these’, were around 5% of our panel. 

Waitrose have made an informed decision in selecting Oxford for its refill campaign. As described in the BBC’s interviews, Oxford is eco-conscious and Waitrose has taken note. Based on the single steer results above, we attempted to establish where in the UK such campaigns are most likely to succeed. The table below shows ‘None of these’ responses by region in order to highlight the places with less rejecters:

North West, Northern Ireland and North East had no rejecters in our steer. In Northern Ireland the discount offered had twice as much influence as packaging reduction, while a substantial 65% of our North East consumer community opted for the latter. 

Waitrose’s refill campaign is an innovation in mainstream retail. Grocery refill might take time to become popular, however, retailers could make an effort to both inform and reward consumers for shopping sustainably. We think that the format should be implemented gradually, starting from pasta, cereal and rice refill stations in the regions with high acceptance. Staples that consumers buy frequently are both more likely to be successful in a refill format and would make a bigger difference in respect of sustainability, due to frequency of purchase.

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