Assessing the loop

Now that UK grocery retailer Tesco has come to the end of its trial period with re-use company Loop, it has published a 2022 ‘Re-use Report’ on its findings from the trial.

Tesco first worked with Loop on an online pilot, which ran between July 2020 and June 2021 and allowed Tesco’s customers to order 150 grocery products in reusable packaging from Loopstore.co.uk and have them delivered to their doorsteps. Branded and Loop own-brand products such as sauces; yogurts; soaps; cereals; moisturiser; chocolate and washing detergents, were delivered to over 500 different UK postcodes.

Then, from September 2021 to June 2022, Tesco conducted its in-store prefill pilot with Loop, in which customers from ten pilot stores in the Midlands and east of England were able to purchase 53 lines from brands such as Persil, Coca Cola, Heinz and Tetley Tea, as well as 35 own-brand essentials, all prefilled and available in store as part of Tesco’s reuse offer. Customers could simply add these products to their shopping basket as part of their shop, eliminating the need to bring their own containers or undertake the refilling themselves.

Tesco’s Re-use Report is generally positive, but does highlight a need for lower costs and various consumer demands to be met for refill schemes to be successful, as well as bringing attention to the fact that businesses, were they to implement the schemes, would need to increase public awareness of the positive impact of re-use over recycling. In its ‘cultural shift towards re-use’ section of the report, Tesco states that this “is also a role for campaigners, experts, opinion formers and media.”

The retailer goes on to state: “For instance, our pilots show that customers tend to prefer products in steel tins and would sometimes avoid durable reusable plastic packaging. This could lead to more packaging in energy-intensive and expensive steel tins than is necessary.

“In scenarios like this, the voice and credibility of opinion formers and NGOs will be needed to build consumer confidence in the fact that durable plastic packaging used as part of a credible reuse scheme will not end up as waste or in the environment.”

There is something that Tesco seems to have glossed over here that it could lean in to, which is that “customers tend to prefer products in steel tins.” This is surely an indication of potential demand. Obviously the solution isn’t just as simple as eliminating all the plastic packaging in re-use schemes like Loop’s, because then you’ll be excluding key brands, and introducing more cost and complexity. However, with more widespread education from NGOs and the media about the benefits of metal packaging, this could help retailers drive the message home and sway consumer opinions regarding re-use. Highlighting the image of metal as more diverse, easier to clean and with a longer circular lifespan, could persuade shoppers to become more switched-on to the idea of re-use and refill in general. After all, they’re already re-using tins for storing tea, coffee, biscuits, toiletries, and whatever else at home.

One key point Tesco raised that I do agree with, is that, to keep simplifying the customer experience in re-use schemes, we must ensure “packaging shapes are optimised for transport and to fit conveniently into the average UK household.” There’s no use introducing unusual shaped tins to complicate transport logistics and costs, and have consumers in a quandary about where to place them in their homes. Simplicity and familiarity is key.

Other points stressed by Tesco in keeping things simple were:

  1. Removing the need to download a stand-alone app to receive a refund of deposits;
  2. Speeding up deposit refunds, or developing an alternative means to remind customers to return packaging without requiring a deposit payment;
  3. Increasing flexibility and locations for packaging returns;
  4. Locating in-store returns stations at the most convenient points for customers.

All in all I think Tesco has provided a fair report, with some reasonable suggestions on what could make schemes like Loop’s more effective in supermarkets. Ashwin Prasad, Tesco’s chief product officer, commented: “We will use our insights to work with stakeholders across the value chain to understand how we best help scale it in future.”

Let’s hope this scaling up finally does come to fruition, with successful implementation and longevity.

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