A Response to Waitrose's New Initiative: is the Future 'Unpacked'?


I was interested to see Waitrose’s Unpacked trial at one of its Oxford stores and I’m even more excited to see whether this becomes more than just a trial, but a main stay of our supermarket shopping experience.

The approach is not new by any means so what is it, that’s going to drive fundamental changes to the way we do our weekly shop. 

Many of the big brands have explored similar set ups, which have clearly not gone beyond trial. Equally there’s a growing count of independent packaging-free stores, but these generally choose locales rich in ‘early adopter’ clientele with time, budget and drive to embrace a new way of shopping.

And this is the crucial point.

To have significant environmental benefit, we need to go beyond the sustainably minded minority and urge lasting behaviour changes from a majority audience. We can’t expect adoption in numbers because it’s ‘doing the right thing’ or there’s a small price incentive. If that was the case, no supermarket today would need carrier bags because we’d all be minding those 5 pennies and bringing our own bag to every shop.

So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s design.

You can’t take away the grab-and-go convenience of pre-packed products (and I’m not talking about cellophane wrapped apples here) with a new system without offering a compelling experience that draws consumers in, offers functional benefits and critically doesn’t create a barrier to them coming back. A bottle that you’ve dispensed detergent all over the outside of because of its narrow neck, a paper bag that isn’t protection enough leaving you with crushed pasta or having to carry 7 glass Kilner jars to and from the store just doesn’t cut it.

And here in lies a problem. We’re expecting to use packaging and containers designed for one job for another. Either we’re refilling single use packs, by definition designed to go through a supply chain once, be accurately filled in a factory, made as cheaply as possible and with the minimum of material. Or we’re being asked to invest in appropriated durable packaging (as per Waitrose) which isn’t designed to be portable, but to sit in your store cupboard at home.

 And what about those household staple brands’ we’re hoping to become part of this? Whilst the pack itself may no longer be the sole ‘at shelf’ ambassador as there will be a fully branded refill station, it still needs to deliver appropriate brand presence through how it looks and behaves and be something you proudly display at home or when en route back to the store.

As we put a toe into the water of less and no plastic with new systems, we need to understand the barriers and offer more than single use packaging. We need to use design to create packaging that does it all: promotes brands in appropriate ways, uses the right materials and technologies, looks sexy displayed on your shelf at home, is light and efficient to transport back to store, yet keeps your purchases in prime condition and is functionally superior to single use packs:  easy to refill and easy to clean. And critically is durable enough to make the refill equation stack up and become ritualistic in a way that people want to integrate it as part of their everyday lives.

We have few chances to get this right. I commend Waitrose and the brands involved in driving this forward and hope others pick up on this lead, but it’s only through designing the complete experience and taking away all the excuses that the majority will be convinced to make big changes in their behaviour and we will all see the big environmental benefits.