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Redesigning the grocery store

What if we can create a culture not by disposing of but of refilling?

Photo of Michelle

Written by

I was inspired by the story of The Fillery in Brooklyn, NY. Not only does it has a goal of reducing the use of single-use plastic packaging, it also aims to reduce food waste.

Grocery stores or supermarkets need to be redesigned so that consumers can be able to close the loop in the plastics industry. It will be designed in a way that makes consumers stick to a refilling routine.

In the first image (green background) is a diagram detailing the efficiency of the system:

1. Customer buys container provided by a company.

2. Customer takes the container to its brand's filling station.

3. Customer buys filled product, not including the container.

4. Customer uses product at home. Customer can return to the store with the empty container for refilling (return to step 2).

5. Customer sells back the container if he don't want the brand anymore or is switching.

The next image is a sophisticated filling station. It could be a machine that emulates a filling component from a factory. The design of it can vary on what kind of product is filled.

In the third image, we need to emphasize interaction at the counter so that the customer can state how much he needs to the grocery clerk (or in the case of meats, a butcher). Why look at countless packaging for the amount you want when you can say how much you need? Grocery stores and supermarkets will need to provide reusable containers for such things as well.

In the fourth image, a container exchange station can work well as a customer service station. The value of the containers must be high enough as an incentive to sell back and not dispose of them.

In the fifth image, companies are inherently responsible for getting their products to market. Distribution can be designed in a way that ultimately uses the method of refilling and makes it a routine.

We currently have the technology to make this happen. We could slowly integrate the system into existing grocery stores/supermarkets or create entirely new markets with the system in place. Or we could do both at the same time...

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

The major takeaways of this system: 1. Refilling will reduce single-use packaging drastically. 2. Customers will save money because they will often be buying the filled product that does not include the container. 3. Companies will save money in the long run because there will be little need to create new packaging for every single product sold. 4. Many resources will be saved from generating additional packagings such as water, electricity, etc. Carbon emissions will be greatly reduced too!

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

Many modern societies were once refillable societies. Ancient civilizations used pottery to refill at various shops and to take back to their places. There are only so few of such habits in remote places around the world. The milkman once refilled our bottles of milk at our doorsteps. Why can't we follow their examples?

Tell us about yourself

I'm a graphic designer. I have a passion for the environment and am concerned about the welfare of people and nature. Wherever I went hiking or kayaking in remote places, I don't go by a day without seeing bits of plastic packaging. When I read about The Fillery, that's when my inspiration comes in!


Join the conversation:

Photo of regma freez

Whenever I hear the grocery store only Walmart, Kroger, Sears will strike into my mind. Because of the service and quality products from Krogers, its became top 2 in grocery field. We can earn 50 fuels points through Kroger customer feedback survey . Another chance is $5k is the prize money for Kroger Survey winners. Hope every departmental store conducts an online survey to overcome its drawbacks and become a no1 grocery store. - ( ) for knowing Kroger employees schedules, Passport, and Kroger locations.

Photo of Colleen Brennan-Vandersteen

Please review @Refill Depot transforming distribution to remove packaging; we are selling high volume dispensing systems to Big Box Retail.   Walmart seeks technology to remove packaging will increase their profits, Refill Depot exceeds their expectations with 12 additional key features!  It has been under research and development for 4.5 years.   The highest environmental savings impact is enable consumers to reduce reuse efficiency creates smart sustainable savings: economically and environmentally!   Thank you for your idea, it is on the right track!   Thanks, Colleen

Photo of Isabel Pelaez

Hi Michelle! Quick question: why buy special containers in the first place? I have a gazillion of those laying around the house (even from old creams that came in lovely glass containers). Perhaps the model would require a bring-your-own system that can be weighted before and after, although doing this efficiently for a crowd would be the tricky part...

Photo of Michelle

It would make more sense if the containers are designed to accommodate a specific product like a hairspray or hot sauce because the amounts we use vary.

Also, the containers could have its own weight when empty, and the digital scale's purpose is to detect the appropriate weight of the empty container before filling in so there's less guesswork at the cashier (I'm not a math whiz, so this could help a lot). All the customer had to do was just to fill in and buy the filled product.

I hope that makes sense! Let me know if you have any more questions.

Photo of Purvish Shah

Hi Michelle. Good inspiration. Here I have certain doubts regarding convenience. We have one time use plastics because they are very convenient, you use and then throw. When we talk about refilling, no doubt it will save company a lot in manufacturing, but if the users find it tedious to carry the empty container, and that too a different one for all different types of products, will they use it? This will also imply that you will have to prepare yourself before you go for shopping. And lets say I forgot to take the empty refillable along with me to the shop, and since I realized that after reaching the shop, I think people would definitely buy a new one. Now the user will have two empty refills. Thus, atleaast one of them will now not reach the company back. How do you think this will impact the whole circular economy. I think Use Case 1 ( Single use sachets ) can be targeted with this concept. Can you explain using that example ?

Photo of Michelle

Convenience is the tricky part of this system. In my area where plastic bags are banned in supermarkets, we've grown so used to using plastic bags that when we check out our items, we sometimes forget to bring in our own cloth bags. They provide paper bags at a cost for that kind of thing. But even if I did forget my trusty cloth bags, I'd simply ask to just put the items in my cart since I still can carry them over to my car - only because I don't want to pay an extra few cents. :)

Anyway, to the point. Even if customers forgot to bring in their containers, they'll, of course, buy them from the market and they can sell back the extra containers later. It's all about incentive. We can bring up a motive for them to give back, but like the plastic bag example I just used, it takes time to get accustomed and by then, we'll be better prepared.

If we're only just stopping by and wants to buy something, then perhaps biodegradable sachets can be provided at a cost the same way as paper bags are provided where I live.

Photo of Helen

The convenience issue is definitely the sticking point with any reusable container concept. I think a cost incentive will overcome this barrier for most people, though - and I'm fairly certain that single-use sachets are much more expensive per gram of product than buying in bulk. The question, then, is how to support low-income consumers to adopt the bulk-buy in reusable containers system? It seems one of the advantages of single-use packets, besides convenience, is low-cost because some consumers do not have the level of cash-flow required to buy in bulk - they only every have enough cash to buy their daily needs. Perhaps the reusable container concept could be combined with micro-lending or a subscription based model to help those low-cashflow consumers to adopt the system?

Photo of Juan Forno

Great post Michelle, I was talking about something similar with a friend recently.

I agree with you Helen. A cost reduction incentive can be sufficient to overcome need for convenience. Especially when the perception of convenience changes as people generate new habits (like using reusable bags instead of single-use plastic ones). An idea for low-income customers could be an option where price is modified based on weight. For instance, if we are talking about shampoo. A customer can use a store provided reusable container, or the customer can bring their own. When they go to the shampoo station they can press the "dispense" button and as the product is coming out, the machine tells them how much they are spending (kinda like when you are filing up your car). Then when they decided on the amount of shampoo (or money you wish to pay) the machine can produce a sticker or something else that indicates the checkout clerk how much you owe for the product. It is definitely an unpolished idea but it may fix the problem.

Photo of Michelle

@Juan, I especially like where you thought up about the price-based-on-weight model. That can be adopted by low-income consumers easily and can reduce food wastage. Sure it’s a rough idea to start with but that can work for sure.

Photo of Michelle

@Helen, You make a good point. The system I thought up is more suitable for middle-class customers and that is so I haven’t thought about low-income consumers. Good catch. Perhaps providing containers in different sizes (options of extra-small, small, medium, large, etc.) instead of a one size container could work also. That might work for reducing food waste as well. :)

Photo of Juan Forno

@Michelle I can also see this being a good opportunity to add technology applications. Instead of stickers, supermarkets can have apps that connect to the dispensing machines and are able to keep track of all the products that were purchased from these dispensers and generate a bar code with the total amount to be added to the bill at check out. (or the app can even use the camera to scan all the bar codes from the products you buy to create one major final bar code with your total cart total and avoid the checkout line ;) ). This is obviously assuming that even most low-income customers have a smart phone. This can even be helpful for people that want to track their groceries and how much they buy either to know better what to get next time, or in the case of low income customers, if there is a way to save some money here and there by getting the right amounts every time.

Photo of Michelle

@Juan, now that's some idea. But allow me to play the devil’s advocate: what if for some reason people don’t have a smartphone on their personage? There are many ways that can happen.

I was thinking that the market can provide some sort of electronic card that people can use. Once after they finished filling their product, the customer can just get their card scanned at each dispensing station. With all the information stored in the chip card, the customer can bring it to the checkout and pay up without any concern whether they bring their smartphone or not.

Photo of Juan Forno

@Michelle great point and a great idea!

I have also seen many things like this:

I know its a little more complex and maybe more expensive, but something like this can also be a way for supermarkets to have more control on which types of experiences they want their customers to have. And with expedited checkouts, it can also eliminate the need for a lot checkout people (jobs wouldn't be lost because there would be a higher need to keep inventory updated). Because the other thing I could see is risk of product theft by the consumers. Perhaps some hardware technology could address that too.

I hope that is not too far off on a tangent.

Photo of Lina Jimenez

I really love this kind of experience, but we cant ignore all marketing that brands pay in order to sell more an more. The refill experiences needs to embrace the marketing dynamics in order to succeed in our consumption context.