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Repurposing incoming boxes for outgoing groceries.

Repurposing back-of-house boxes for front-of-house bag replacement.

Photo of Nathan Heath
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Written by

Solution Title

Re-box

Solution Summary

Retailers can repurpose the boxes they receive goods in as containers for customers to move their purchases in. Skip the bag. Just re-box.

Terms and Conditions

  • Yes

Company / Organization Name (if applicable)

Nathan Lee Heath Consulting

Website (if applicable)

NathanLeeHeath.com

What is the current stage of development of your solution?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring a solution, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users. If your solution is early stage, not a fully formed solution, apply here to meet a co-founder, a technical team, or other Innovators who may be able to help you take your solution from vision to reality: https://forms.gle/z32NWVgFFNra2DPe7. Note: This does not impact your evaluation as there are several award tiers, but helps us better support you.

Please include a visual (can be either 2D or 3D) representation/prototype of your concept. The first image you provide will be the image used to promote your idea as a Winner.

To be updated

Nearly every item that graces the shelves and carts of our local retail stores was first shipped in a box. In many stores, company policy dictates that those boxes are immediately broken down, flat stacked, and packaged for recycling. The simple act of breaking down a box usually signals the end of its productive life until it is recycled into another box. In those very same stores, those very same items are taken off the shelves by customers and ultimately placed in plastic bags that are insufficiently reused and recycled.

Those boxes represent an opportunity to eliminate the entry of plastic bags into the system altogether. We can skip the bag, and repurpose the box.

The idea is simple. And this solution is intended to help make the execution smooth and cost-efficient. My consulting firm can support stores in developing, implementing, tracking, and improving systems that seek to replace plastic (or paper) bags with repurposed boxes. We can aid in process and infrastructure conceptualization, floor space value considerations, training development, monitoring systems, PR capitalization, etc.

The beauty of this idea is its conceptual simplicity, utilization of existing resources, and value proposition to customers.

According to the WSJ, US retailers spend more than $4 billion handing out more than 100 billion plastic bags every year. With less than 1% of those bags being recycled, any improvement in that system would be significant. Replacing those bags with a repurposed box system introduces exactly zero new resources into that supply stream. With most recycling centers offering wider service areas than the multiple retailers they encompas, most of these boxes will eventually end up in the same recycling stream.  

Global consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the companies they patronize. Environmental concerns cut across generations, geographies, and gender. Replacing bags with repurposed boxes makes intuitive sense and provides a blunt visual and kinetic cue to customers that your company doesn't just care but is making changes. It also has the benefit of being a great photo op. With cardboard recycling prices in a steady decline, the market has never been more primed to trade the recycling value of boxes for the cost savings of ditching bags and the marketing value of going green.


This solution addresses which of the following:

  • Point of sale checkout
  • In-store pickup
  • Local delivery from retailer
  • Reusable models
  • Bagless solutions

How does this solution integrate into retail environments or delivery systems?

Integrating the use of repurposed boxes into the checkout experience can offer some challenges. We are here to help. There are three core dynamics at play. We will use insights from pilot stores to understand and optimize the customer experience, the store's logistical process, and the bottom line. For any solution to succeed there must be social gains for the customers, employees, and the shareholders.

Describe your target market. Who will benefit from your product?

Comparable systems are often used in smaller, independent grocers, community co-ops, and liquor stores. These stores offer valuable anecdotal evidence and a current baseline for best practices. What is currently required to have a scalable impact is for a larger corporate partner to pilot the system and prove its scalability. Once implemented, the environmental impacts would be the greatest benefits. Consumers and companies alike would both gain from appreciating their roles in the improvement. The subtleties of boxing, rather than bagging, would likely be manageable by cashiers and "baggers." There would also be PR benefits to early adopters.

How does or might your solution meet or exceed the performance of the single-use plastic bag?

Boxes used to ship goods to retail stores are subject to higher standards than the plastic bags currently in use. With little to no learning curve for customers, there should be a low user adjustment cost. The one accessibility concern boxes raise is that larger, handless boxes can be more difficult to use for customers with only one usable hand.

How does this solution impact / improve workflows for stakeholders (e.g. cashiers, stocking staff)?

One of the logistical components of a switch from plastic bags to repurposed boxes is the workflow for staff. Cashiers will have to undergo a transition from packaging goods in bags to boxes. Many of the same principals apply, however. The largest effect will be on the staff responsible for relocating boxes from where they are emptied to their final location near to the checkout and/or cart collection. In high volume locations, there will likely be an adjustment period.

What additional benefits might the solution provide to stakeholders (retailers and customers alike)?

Currently, distributors have limited incentives to consider their box design as an advertisement. If customers began interacting with their packaging, distributors may identify advertising value in their design.

How is your solution scalable across retail environments?

This solution is scalable to any retail environment that can relocate boxes to the customer-facing, front-of-house. Businesses that are prohibitively limited by space (i.e. - urban bodegas) may struggle to implement this system without collapsing and then rebuilding the boxes. There is certainly a labor/space trade-off to consider.

What regions will your solution be applicable in?

This solution is applicable in any retail environment where boxes are used to recieve goods. This solution could be scaled to meet the needs any a particular retail environment. It is also compliant with local plastic bag ban laws.

How is your solution recoverable? What is the expected end of life for this solution's materials once it is no longer usable? Please upload any documentation or evidence of material recoverability.

The elegance of this model is that it utilizes existing infrastructure. "Big box stores" already generate considerable waste and recycling as they receive and unpackage the goods that grace their shelves. When customers give a second use to these boxes, the very same recycling center will likely receive the very same box. This solution extendes the usable life of a box, without altering its predictable end-of-life destination.

In what ways does or might your solution prompt behavior change amongst stakeholders, including retail staff and customers? How will your solution successfully design for this change?

Re-use is a neglected element of the commercial environment. Changes such as repurposing boxes can have subtle, lasting effects on how both customers and staff view materials they traditional disregard.

What unintended consequences can you foresee unfolding from your solution, and how might you mitigate them?

This solution faces three challenges: 1. Sanitation: Boxes will likely be handled by more people than bags. Sanitation stations, now common, can provide customers a cleaning opportunity. 2. Recycling value: Many retailers currently sell their cardboard. In many places around the world, recycling value is falling and environmental reputation may outpace any lost value. 3. Accessibility: Appropriate box selection and access to carts should be made available for those who can only use one hand.

What health and safety concerns might your solution raise, and how are you considering addressing them?

Delivery containers may be exposed to trace materials (gluten, peanuts, etc.) that some shoppers may be allergic to. Warning signs should be placed at any location where consumers may pick-up their boxes.

What are the biggest challenges you're facing today? What are existing gaps in your solution?

Our biggest challenge is establishing a partnership with a retailer who is willing to implement a pilot program. COVID-19 has delayed our current pilot program.

Mentorship needs (please select up to 3)

  • Business Model Development
  • Waste and Infrastructure
  • Retail Operations/Flow

Tell us about yourself and your team. What is your background and experience?

My background is in humanitarian action and pro-social solutions. I consult with organizations, companies, and thought leaders on impact and strategy.

In what city are you located?

Boulder

In what country are you located?

USA

What is your legal / organizational structure? (if applicable)

I currently operate as an LLC.

Please describe how becoming a Winner will support the growth of your concept.

Winning offers a validation of concept that can be uniquely capitalized upon. This platform has already sparked multiple conversations and generated significant exposure. Joining the Accelerator may be the difference between creating real change or a side project. The ultimate goal is to prove the concept, launch with a large retailer, and standardize the practice. The first to do so will be known for changing the way we all shop.

How did you hear about the Challenge?

  • Someone in my network (word of mouth)

Do you feel like your organization or team is actively equitable or anti racist? What are some examples of this?

At this early stage, I am a one-man-team. I commit to being actively equitable and anti-racist as this solution develops and expands into a collaborative exercise.

8 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Hi Nathan.
Thanks for posting your idea. I really like it! As I read it I had a few thoughts. What if the customer chooses their own box and uses it while they shop, putting the box in their basket, or cart, and packing it along their journey in the store? In this way there is no issue at check out. When they arrive at check out items can be taken out to scan and immediately placed back in the box. The customer would likely know what size box they would need based on what they were planning to shop for.

The idea seems most feasible in places where people drive to shops and the box can be put into a car.
I live in Manhattan. Here customers either carry packages home by foot or via public transport, use a taxi, take personal shopping carts to stores, or have the store deliver their purchase. One thought is to provide access to something like a collapsible luggage cart (like we used prior to suitcases having wheels), to use to transport the box home. What if these were available around the city at stations, like Citibike, where one could borrow and return them, making it easy to transport a shopping box in an urban environment?

Good luck testing and developing the idea!

Spam
Photo of Nathan Heath
Team

Hey Bettina,

Thanks for reaching out. I think your idea is great. I envision at least two points in a store where boxes are made availble to customers. One next to where the carts are placed, so customers can place boxes in carts to use as you described. The second point would be at checkout.

Great point on what are the most likely use cases (locations). Do you (and others) typically carry your groceries home with plastic bags?

If you have any other thoughts, I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

Thanks,
Nathan

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Nathan,
Hi. Yes I and many others use plastic bags at supermarkets, pharmacies, take out restaurants etc. At times I would bring my own bag for shopping but usually not. I do not usually plan a big shopping trip. I often shop on my way home from work or elsewhere, multiple times a week. Pre-pandemic this would often mean getting off public transportation and doing errands between the bus/subway stop and home. In this city where most folk are on foot, I think this is common.

On March 1, NY State started a plastic bag ban. Some stores immediately went to paper bags, charging 5 cents per bag. I read that some stores also had the large paper bags with handles and the charge for these was 15 cents. (When this ban happened I did start to carry a bag with me regularly, in case I would stop to shop. Sometimes I left home without one though and then bought paper bags as needed. I find paper bags with handles comfortable, strong, and I reuse them for a variety of things.) Other big stores continued to use plastic. I was told that they were permitted to do so until they used up current supplies. The pandemic hit hard here just weeks later, and the plastic bag ban was put on hold. We are now going back to that ban, from August 1.
(During the pandemic some stores, at least where I live in NYC, did not want customers to bring in their own bags for fear of spreading the virus on surfaces.) (Regarding using plastic bags, for me they are not single use as I used them as garbage bags for small garbage cans. Not sure if others do this too.)

Once the pandemic hit my shopping habits changed. I did not go to supermarkets for several months, rather used delivery services. I have used Instacart, FreshDirect (local to this area), and Amazon Prime. I noticed several things. Instacart always delivers in plastic bags, provided by the local markets their shoppers are shopping in. Fresh Direct has it's own bags, with their name on it. Apparently prior to the pandemic they would reuse these, picking them up on redelivery I guess. They notified customers they would discontinue this practice and we can recycle these bags. They are large totes. Not sure if they are paper and plastic combined?
Amazon Prime delivers using paper bags and for perishables they use "envelopes" made from bubble wrap.

The demand for at home delivery during these months was huge in my area. I believe Instacart has vehicles that bring deliveries from the store to homes. Amazon Prime was interesting. On a walk during our lockdown I saw a few delivery guys on bicycles towing huge flatbeds anchored to them, with large plastic crates on top. Prior to the pandemic they were not towing flatbeds. They probably used a shopping cart to move around the neighborhood, as they do from the supermarket on my corner. FreshDirect uses trucks as they come from their facilities. I have seen these large trucks pull up on big street corners and unload. From there workers fan out using carts to deliver items street by street.

I wonder if any of these delivery services might be interested in testing the box idea? It might be a way for them to distinguish themselves from competitors?

I also wonder if there is something about what Prime is doing in terms of local delivery, using bikes and flatbeds, as a model to look at in terms of moving purchases within urban communities. I believe the Prime deliveries are filled at the local Whole Foods Store. What if a service was developed in which independent contractors could partner with local businesses to make local deliveries? Contractors might deliver store orders as well as purchases made in store by customers? (boxes?) One thing I have noticed is that in my local supermarket and local independent pharmacy there are one or two regular staff who make deliveries. Customers know and trust them.

Spam
Photo of Nathan Heath
Team

Hey Bettina,

Thanks for sharing. I think your idea of seeking opportunities with delivery services is gold. Boxes and the fill material used to protect items could be passed on from retailers to delivery providers.

Thank you. And as always, please share any other ideas that you have.

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Glad the idea resonated! Are you thinking of testing some part of your idea in your area?
(Sorry for the long comment but during lockdown I observed things so figured I would share. I think some of these things might continue for awhile. I just learned of a new delivery service promoting shopping from local neighborhood stores, trying to save them. cinchmarket.nyc)

Spam
Photo of Nathan Heath
Team

Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your insights.

Prior to COVID-19, I was about to pilot the project with an independent grocer/general store that serves a customer base diverse enough to be a meaningful pilot. The current situation overwhelmed their staff and it was placed on the backburner by the management. I am hopeful that we will continue the pilot in due time. If anyone out there is interested in collaborating on a pilot venture, I am available.

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Testing locally sounds good! Are there customers at this market that come in on foot and also by car? I imagine even a small test might be a way to see how customers react. Perhaps the market could offer it only as an option, and at a time of the day when business is light? Maybe customer satisfaction and uptake might work to move something like this forward?

I read a news report that Walmart is piloting a partnership with Instacart for same day grocery deliveries, in a few markets in California and Oklahoma.

Spam
Photo of Nathan Heath
Team

Hey Bettina,

The grocery store I am trying to pilot with has a customer base that is primarily used by customers with cars (like most American grocery stores), but also has a significant number of customers who walk, bike, or bus home. The first iteration would introduce it as an option, in addition to bags (both plastic and paper). It is in a county that has a bag tax, so we are integrating it with their reporting system as well.