OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Making bulk food stores and package free shops mainstream

Buying in bulk requires a fundamental shift in the consumer mindset; economic benefits and attractive brand creation are key drivers

Photo of Emma Chow
3 4

Written by

In Canada, we have a chain of bulk food stores called, Bulk Barn. Bulk Barn shoppers can fill store-provided plastic bags (not recyclable) with dry goods, and recyclable plastic containers with liquids (e.g. honey) and pay according to weight of the product. While the business model inherently reduces plastic packaging, the customers are largely drawn to shop at Bulk Barn due to economic incentives (lower costs) and a one-stop shop for all the dry ingredients one could need. Overall, Bulk Barn lacks a strong brand and could better position itself in the market. That being said, Bulk Barn did launch a new reusable container program recently, which will hopefully minimize customer plastic bag use. (http://www.bulkbarn.ca/en/Home

Gram, Sweden's first package-free store, is an example of great branding and fundamentally designing a store and accompanying programming and image to shift the way consumers buy. It's important for consumers to understand why their packaging matters. Unlike Bulk Barn, Gram stocks nearly its entire store with organic goods, helping to build the brand. (http://grammalmo.se/about_gram/

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

Package-free grocery shopping, means fewer instances of plastic film that cannot be recycled, or worse, ends up loose in the environment. It challenges consumers to rethink the way they buy their food, and hopefully other consumer products, as well.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Learning about Gram inspires me to imagine package free stores in emerging economies. Is it easier to shape consumer culture in developing countries as incomes rise and consumerism grows, than it is to shift deeply engrained consumer behavior in developed economies?

Tell us about yourself

As a former environmental studies and economics student, I conducted several research projects on recycling systems, including household plastic packaging successes and extended producer responsibility policies in Sweden. I now live and work in the US, where I do business management consulting.

3 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Photo of Emma Chow

Milena Marcetic Yvette Velasco Great input re: potential for consumers to perceive package-free stores as "fads", cost, and ensuring goods are not wasted as a result of passing the expiration date. I suppose the only way to overcome the "fad" barrier is to design such stores in a way that makes behavioral change achievable enough that consumer habits cross the threshold needed to render package-free stores long-lasting and sustainable, rather than a fad.

In terms of charging premium prices, Bulk Barn in Canada is actually cheaper than purchasing at the super market for many items; it is actually low cost and range of available dry goods that attracts many of the customers. I do understand how the "all-organic" version of Bulk Barn would have premium prices though. Given the added inconvenience associated with reusable jars, etc., I believe successful "all-organic" package-free stores would need to be able to price their goods lower than places like Whole Foods, in order to compete.

Regarding expiration dates: this is an important factor, and careful selection of products can help ensure that only those with sufficiently long shelf-life are stocked. Additionally, type of dispensing container, quality of container seal and temperature in back room storage facilities (are there solutions for vacuum-sealing large bags of products in bins in the back room to help preserve food product stocks?) affect the store's ability to maximize shelf length. Most package-free stores focus on food, but I see the greatest power in extending this concept to products such as shampoo, toiletries, household cleaning products, etc. Of course, the biggest factor in all of this, is the dependency on consumers to change their behavior; this is likely most difficult in developed countries where buying habits have been deeply engrained over generations. I see great potential within emerging economies when consumers' buying power is increasing, thus consumption is increasing; there is opportunity to establish low-package or package-free stores now and position them as pillars in the competitor landscape, where buying from bulk vendors is simply the normal practice. When there is no alternative (or the alternatives cost a premium), then there are reasons beyond simply environmental benefits that motivate consumers to shop at package-free stores. Thoughts on adopting a micro-entrepreneurship model where street vendors sell / pedal along the residential streets bulk household good/dry food products in developing countries? I have seen street vendors selling reusable bottles of petrol in Vietnam and Cambodia, or pedaling carts of street food and cleaning dusters along road -- why not take that approach for other goods as a means for improving consumer convenience and minimizing plastic packaging waste?

View all comments