M&S expands refill scheme amid growing customer appetite for plastic-free groceries

The trial received much positive feedback from shoppers


The retailer first began trialling a “fill your own” station at its Hedge End store in Southampton in the latter half of 2019. The format offered shoppers a choice of 44 packaging-free own-brand lines including pasta, confectionery, coffee, grains and pulses. Crucially, products were offered at price parity – or lower prices – than the pre-packaged options.

During the trial, 25 of the 44 lines outsold their pre-packaged counterparts, M&S revealed in a statement today (2 March). Across all 44 lines, more than 2,600kg of loose product was sold over a three-month period.

These promising results – compounded by M&S’s own consumer research revealing that one-quarter of shoppers would now actively choose stores with packaging-free offerings over those that do not – have led M&S to extend the “fill your own” format. The same 44 lines will soon be offered at M&S’s Manchester City Centre by the end of March.

M&S’s director of food technology Paul Willgoss said that shoppers were attracted to the packaging-free offering not only due to environmental concerns, but because they benefit from flexible portion sizes to avoid food waste and costs, and because families enjoy the interactivity of dispensing their own food.

Nonetheless, the environmental impact of plastics packaging was the key driver for setting up the trial. Research by the BBC found that the majority of single-use plastic packaging in British homes is used to house food and beverages, placing supermarkets at the sharp end of the so-called consumer war on plastics.

“Our fill your own concept is one area we’re focusing on as part of our action to reduce plastic packaging and support our customers to reuse and recycle,” M&S’s Wilgoss said.

“As a completely new way of shopping, we’re keen to better understand refill across the entire store process from behind the scenes operations to working together with our customers to encourage behaviour change.” 

M&S’s broader plastics packaging strategy – which is embedded in its Plan A for sustainability – is headlined by a 2022 ambition that packaging that could end up with customers will be “widely recycled”. As part of its aim, the retailer is planning to develop one recyclable plastic polymer for use across all of its plastic packaging and removing plastics from products such as clothing, cotton buds and coffee pods. 

On reuse, M&S has plumped for individual incentive schemes rather than setting time-bound, numerical targets. It offers customers at all stores with cafes a 25p discount on hot drinks to go when they bring a reusable cup and offers free water refill stations at several stores. A more recent addition to its refill offering was the introduction of a 25p discount for customers bringing reusable containers for food-to-go from its Market Place counters. These can be found in 23 stores and offer both hot and cold lunch options.

Refill revolution

With supermarkets being hit by “mass unwrap” movements and campaigns such as Sky’s #PassOnPlastic and GreenPeace’s supermarket league table, M&S is one of several large retailers to invest in refillable formats in recent months.

Waitrose & Partners, for example, took more than 200 products out of their packaging – from fruit and vegetables, to grains, beer and wine – out of their packaging at its Botley Road store in Oxford last spring. The trial proved so popular with customers that it has since been expanded.

Taking notice of this success, Sainsbury’s recently began trialling refill stations for Ecover washing-up liquid at its Haringey store and will extend the format to 19 more locations this year. The chain is also exploring refillable versions of products such as milk and fizzy drinks in the coming years, as it strives to halve the amount of plastics it uses for packaging by 2025.

Similarly, Asda will begin trialling packaging-free, refillable versions of some of its most popular products in May. The trial will begin at its Middleton store in Leeds, taking in own-brand lines as well as Kellogg cereals.

It is worth noting that many independent health food and grocery stores have been offering smaller refill lines for years.

M&S’s research cited key customer barriers to scaling the model up as the need to carry containers and a perception that unpackaged goods tend to be more expensive than packaged alternatives. BBC research last year found that plastic-housed goods from major UK supermarkets can be up to 42% pricier than their loose counterparts.

Logistical challenges also exist in scaling up refill for supermarkets, in terms of cost, maintaining product quality and in ensuring that food waste does not increase.

Looking to the near future, TerraCycle’s Loop format – which seeks to allay these and other barriers – will launch in the UK in partnership with Tesco later this month. Already proving a success in the US and France, Loop enables businesses to provide product refills to consumers while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging. TerraCycle, meanwhile, takes responsibility for cleaning packaging and recycling it at its end-of-life.

Sarah George

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