The word “grocer” derives from Middle English to denote a person who sold things in gross or large quantities. The preface “gross” is also found in Old French grossier, Medieval Latin grossarius, and Late Latin grossus.
Originally, grocers sold dry goods such as spices, peppers, sugar, tea, coffee, and cocoa in bulk. As the availability of a variety of foods grew in concert with customer demand, grocers started to stock flour, dry beans, baking soda, and other non-perishable foods. Scales were used to measure out the desired amount, and brown paper was used to wrap-up purchases.
The availability of cans and less-perishable packaging such as paper and cardboard boxes, waxed paper, and tins enabled grocers to offer a wider variety of foods. Fast forward hundreds of years, and today’s neighborhood and regional grocery and big box stores sell groceries packaged in Styrofoam, plastic, paper, cans and tins, bottles, and reusable containers.
Packaging has become integral to the product being sold, ensuring freshness, and making it easy to stock on shelves, and in refrigerator and freezer cases. The exception is when you purchase from a meat, fish deli (cheese, sliced meats) or bakery (cookies, bagels, bread) counter or farmer’s market. Chances are your selection will be wrapped in brown or waxed paper, or slipped into a paper or plastic bag.
While packaging provides food manufacturers and distributors with the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition, and more importantly, provide information about the product inside – including nutritional values, cooking instructions, recipes and related products – it’s sometimes incites customer dissatisfaction.
The number of hotdogs in a package rarely match the number of buns in a plastic bag. Spices sold in small bottles or tins usually lose their flavor before they can be used up. The same is true for the potency of yeast, and sometimes baking powder and baking soda. Other foods like baking chocolate, chocolate chips, powdered milk, cocoa, olive oil, brown and wild rice, and some grains and lentils can become rancid if not used within a year or improperly stored.
Recognizing these issues, and wanting to provide consumers with an alternative to packaged foods, Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski used crowdfunding to open Original Unverpackt in Berlin, Germany. Touting “zero waste,” the alternative grocery store sells 350 products, which are dispensed from refillable containers and bottles. Customers bring their own containers or can purchase them at the store, enabling them to buy exactly what they need, including a couple of aspirin or other over-the-counter pills.
The amount of waste from packaging in landfills motivated Wolf and Glimbovski to open the store, which also sells fresh fruits and vegetables, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and other items you’d find in a traditional grocery store.
Eliminating or minimizing packaging isn’t new. Grocery stores like WinCo, Whole Foods, and most health food stores have bulk bins that enable you to purchase just what you need. But until now, none have been solely devoted to allowing customers to use their own containers and bags.
Other industries have dabbled in minimized packaging with great success. The toiletry company Lush uses limited packaging, inviting customers to browse through tables and shelves stacked with bath bombs, shower jellies, shampoo and massage bars, and other body, facial and hair products. Some of their items like body soaps and henna hair dye are made in large wheels or blocks, which are sliced into smaller pieces for sales.
At first glance, a Lush store looks like a bakery with tasty confections carefully staked on plates with large handwritten signs, listing the ingredients and prices.
Ace Hardware and some big box stores have bins and drawers of nuts, bolts, handles, nails, screws, fasteners, and other hardware, which you can buy as many as needed. While offering hardware in this manner is challenging for the retailer, given the need to regularly inventory and refill each bin or drawer, the customer shopping experience is highly satisfying. Instead of having to purchase a box of a dozen or more items, they can purchase just one or two.
Some of the success of Amazon might be tied to the ability to browse for venders who sell exactly what you need or offer items that aren’t available in brick-and-mortar locations. Recently, I purchased boxes to ship porcelain dolls, which are 28-inches high, around 12 inches wide, and less than 8 inches high. Quirky size, but several vendors on Amazon had boxes with similar dimension, which could be ordered in small quantities. They arrived a few days after I placed my order, making me a very happy customer.
What options are available to your business for enabling customers to select from unpackaged items?