10 April 2024, 10:26 AM
  • Has the bubble burst on refillable food, drink and home products? Or is there a way to make it a viable, sustainable addition to your store. Speciality Food speaks to the retailers making it work for them
Refill: Is it still worth investing in?

Working towards minimising waste, or even aspiring to a zero-waste future, is something fine food retailers are increasingly factoring into their long-term business strategies.

This could involve stopping waste at source in a circular economy by returning containers to manufacturers for reuse, cutting the amount of waste generated on premises, and (on a growing scale), reducing the amount of waste being handled by customers.

There’s a lot to be said for refill retailing as a way to achieve this green vision.

Although the refill market seems to have had its ‘boom’, many retailers are reporting strong success, achieved by folding a refillable option into their existing offering, while creating bold, exciting retail ‘hooks’ that entice customers through the door, where they can then discover the process of buying loose goods, while reducing their packaging footprint, and often saving money.

How to make your shop greener

Amanda Lewis, of Refill in Leiston, opened her shop six weeks before Covid, having been inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s BBC TV series, War on Plastic.

“I just thought, I have to do it,” she says, adding that the idea of driving to the nearest city to the refill products she wanted, was senseless to her.

Over in Penistone near Sheffield, the founder of All is Good, a refill and sustainable deli, says she, like Amanda, felt it was pointless in her mission to reduce her carbon footprint, to drive to get the loose goods she wanted – especially as she had a background in retail.

Karen Close was told her ideas were too ‘hippy dippy’, when she operated an organic vegetarian cafe alongside a vegetable box scheme 20 years ago. “I always felt it was the right thing to do, but possibly I was doing it at the wrong time,” she says.

However, emerging out of Covid lockdowns, which followed devastating wildfires in Australia, Karen said she felt an urgency amongst the public to do things differently, and simply had to jump on that sentiment to do better by the planet.

“Refill is a bit like flares,” muses Angus Ferguson, who set up one of the UK’s first bottle refilling businesses, Demijohn, in 2004, going on to have three further high street outlets across Scotland and England. During his time in the Army, while stationed in Germany, he says he was wowed by markets where shoppers were able to fill up their own bottles with food and drink.

Introducing the concept in Edinburgh was, he adds, “revolutionary”. 

“No one had seen anything like it.” And this includes the local council authority, which was so amazed by the low amount of refuse generated by the business, it suspected Angus had been hiding or dumping it elsewhere! “We really were breaking unbelievable new ground,” he says.

It took a little while to get consumers used to filling the business’s attractive keepsake, collectible bottles with their range of premium oils, vinegars, cordials and spirits, but it was a great success. Though in 2017 Angus, noting a decline generally in high street footfall, decided to pivot his business model, switching to ecommerce, and last year opening a ‘hub’ in Southwest Scotland where customers can refill, online orders can be fulfilled, and planning takes place for their rollout scheme, creating concessions in farm shops. Currently Demijohn is in five outlets, with expansion planned into 2024. “It’s a nice thing to do,” he explains. “Customers turn up to farm shops, refill, and then they might have a bit of lunch or do some more shopping. It’s a massive win for both sides.”

The area Amanda’s shop is based in is considered, in her county, a bit of a poor relation to some of the touristy seaside hotspots nearby, but she believed, with a great butcher and greengrocer still in business on the high street, that a refill shop would marry well with the local offering. Spending time building up a social media presence in the months before opening proved fruitful. “Everyone was keen to get involved and liked the idea of shopping in a different way,” she says, adding that she’s built up a strong band of loyal customers, who followed her when she moved premises to run alongside a nearby social supermarket. “It’s great because they can buy surplus stock from supermarkets here and then buy refills of smaller amounts of things they need to feed their family. It helps them to spread their budgets and reduce food waste further.”

To maximise sales at All is Good, Karen knew she needed to have an attractive offering outside of refill. “It was very apparent to me that if we went down the refill only route we would struggle to get people through the door,” she says, adding that she felt people’s perceptions over price, or feeling self-conscious asking for things in specific quantities, might stop them popping in. “I looked at the audience and decided what I needed to do was to create lots of different reasons for people to come into the shop, then they could discover the refill by accident.”

All is Good partnered with local artists and makers who’d amassed huge followings on social media during Covid lockdowns, allowing them to display their products in the shop, and charging a small commission for any sales. “It really works for us,” Karen says.

How to make more sells on refill products

A big part of the refill prospect is challenging customers’ preconceptions – particularly that it’s more costly. Angus says he has no doubt the tide is turning. “We have definitely seen a wake up, as people realise they need to do something to help with what is happening with climate change. Everyone doing a small bit really can make a difference. Refilling went up the list of priorities. It is a difficult thing to do, to remember to clean out your bottle and take it to a shop, but once that becomes a ritual, it’s much easier. We’re finding people are much more receptive to it these days.

Amanda agrees, saying a big part of what she does is trying to ensure as many people as possible feel comfortable with the concept of refill…to make it friendly and appealing. “A lot of people think shopping packaging-free is expensive. But actually, most of my customers think I’ve forgotten to put things through the till because they’re surprised how cheap it is.”

Posting pictures (with permission) of a customer’s shopping, alongside the receipt on social media is a good way to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of this way of filling up a basket. “But the best way to get the message across is for customers to tell friends and family.”

One of the ways All is Good gets customers on side is by encouraging them to bring in their own bottles, rather than buying new in the shop, which might sound counterintuitive, but “that way the initial outlay is low, and people can slowly work their way through the products,” says Karen. “We have a Net Zero plan for 2035, and a big part of that is initiatives like this, and educating people. There is a lot of demonisation of plastic, but at the end of the day it takes less energy to produce than glass. It’s about how many times you reuse it.”

Something else that proves a good selling tool is ensuring customers understand they don’t have to lug home a big bag of flour/oats/spices/sugar. “We don’t force people to buy 500g or 100g. One of the biggest things we sell is spices. We have a zero-waste spice wall, and people come back to top up their spice jars from home. But if they only want a couple of teaspoons, we can do that. It makes a difference.”

Top refill products to stock

Getting your offering right is essential. Too little refill stock and customers might perceive that it’s not worth visiting to top up their weekly shop…while too much will leave you with the mammoth task of shifting stock that, unpackaged, likely has a lower shelf life than if it were sealed in plastic. 

Amanda says she’s surprised that her biggest sellers in food and drink are snacks, sweets and chocolates, though this tallies with industry insight, which cites both sustainability, and ‘treating moments’ as big trends for 2024.

“Honestly, it’s a shocker. I thought I’d be selling more pasta, rice and pulses.” Amanda’s shop offers a ‘posh pick and mix, with customers able to choose from different nuts and fruits covered in chocolate. “And we have a range of organic and Fairtrade chocolate buttons from Cocoa Loco. They’re all hand made. That’s a really lovely UK-based family business. We have a few grandparents come in to fill up for when their grandkids come around.

“And Hodmedod’s are brilliant. They do a range of snacks in bulk and are one of the only companies in the UK, as far as I’m aware, able to grow quinoa and chia seeds here, which means we’re not having to import them.”

One of the biggest success stories for Amanda has been working with wholesaler Wigan Wholefoods. “They’re supplying more and more stores across the country, and they’re happy to provide bulk goods in paper packaging. It’s the only place I’ve come across that does that. I can get 12kgs of pasta at a time in a paper sack!”

Household cleaning products and soaps from Fill are part of the lifeblood at All is Good, says Karen. “The bottles look amazing. People want to display them. We sold so many bottles in the first week we had them in the shop – it was ridiculous.” Growth here has been exponential. Starting with a line of six products, with a plan for expansion slowly across two years, the shop was forced to increase its range and volume within just six months, supported by Crowdfunding in the community, which raised £25,000, demonstrating a local appetite for what Karen and her business partner were doing. Washing liquid and handwash are staunch customer favourites. “And in terms of food, it’s always nuts and seeds. They go really well. We sell loads of them. Also, the more quirky things like refillable gin - we sell tonnes of that at Christmas.”

Christmas is a prime time for Angus as well, with sales of sloe gin and bramble-infused Scotch whisky soaring. “In the spring we usually see demand for our new harvest extra virgin olive oil - there’s nothing like fresh oil, a few weeks’ old, when it’s luminescent green. It’s a bit of heaven. In farm shop settings, oils and vinegars are a hit, especially black garlic balsamic. “It’s fabulous. People find this incredible ingredient, and it transforms their cooking. Use it for beautiful salads, amazing roast veg, or even put it in pasta sauce – and everyone thinks you’re Jamie Oliver!”

Tips for selling refill products

Karen says buying in bulk is better – especially when it comes to household cleaning products. “One of the reasons we crowdfunded was, when we originally started, we had 20lt containers with little pumps on. It became apparent they weren’t user-friendly. We had to man them ourselves, which took people away from the till. And the more popular it got, the harder it was to manage.” All is Good invested in huge barrels of product which, while an expensive outlay, meant customers could help themselves, creating an interactive experience in store.

Amanda’s biggest piece of advice is to be aware of how much time refill takes. “A lot of big supermarkets have tried to break into refill, and it hasn’t worked,” she says. “They don’t have the time or the amount of staff to keep on top of it, and to keep it looking fresh. That’s the biggest thing. You have to actually care about doing things this way, and not just see it as a money spinner.”

Selling other products alongside refill, repeats Karen, is absolutely vital. Her refillable options account for only 25% of sales. ”You need to dangle something else. We have people coming in for coffee, or for sourdough made a couple of miles away. Then they end up going out with a piece of artwork or more food, or some handwash. They will stumble into the refill area and go, ‘oh wow, refillable gin’.”

Keeping it local is as important to Karen as minimising waste. “We make sure everything we buy is made by local people, using local products so we are supporting growing the local economy, which is so important as well.”

Space is another consideration, says Angus, as refilling can have a large space requirement, especially if you want to do it well. “A lot of retailers are the same in that they want an awful lot of stuff in their shops and will fill them to the gunwales. That can be not so conducive to a good customer experience.”

Space between counters, shelving and customers needs to be carefully planned, he adds. “They hate it when they want to look at something and someone else tries to squeeze past. Stand in your shop, watch what happens around your shelving.” Perhaps you need to create more space, or move things around to accommodate refills? “Farm shops tend to have enough space,” adds Angus. “And we have been successful with them. If they are doing an expansion and decided to add a new area, they’ve approached us and said, ‘we want to do something now’. I’d say if you’re planning to expand, that’s the time to really think about refill, so you can tailor the space and create a nice enjoyable visit.”

Amanda is unwavering in her view of refill being one of many ways store owners and shoppers can live and operate more sustainably. “Obviously we’re in the middle of a huge climate crisis, and any small thing we can do will add up,” she says. “It’s important companies focus on being more plastic-free and environmentally focused. I know it’s a fine line for some, but if they can do it, then they should, as this way of shopping desperately needs to be accessible for the masses.”