Let Them Eat Bulk: The Success of France’s Cheap, Zero-Waste Food Chain
Would you rather pay for packaging or for food? A growing chain of French stores is catering to shoppers who want to produce less waste and save money.
(Photo: Day by Day/Facebook)
JAN 19, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Bea Johnson is the author of the bestselling book “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Waste,” a speaker and blogger whose family has been living waste-free since 2008.
VERSAILLES, France—Burlap bags line the storefront windows of Day by Day, a fast-growing chain of bulk stores that are popping up all over France. Decorative tin cans mingle with glass jars in all sorts of shapes and sizes on the shelves, loose bars of soap release a pleasant aroma—all reminiscent of the grocery store that I could have dreamed up trying to reproduce Oleson’s Mercantile as depicted in the Little House on the PrairieTV show.
I was recently invited to the Versailles branch to sign copies of my book Zero Waste Home, a guide to leading a zero-waste lifestyle, and the displays there are incomparable to any I have seen when I shop from bulk bins at stores like Whole Foods in the U.S., or hundreds of stores worldwide specializing in packaging-free foods.
Going packaging-free for food purchases by frequenting bulk foods sections is a high-impact way to shrink your waste: In the U.S., about 30 percent of total waste is food containers and packaging, such as cereal boxes, milk cartons, and potato chip bags.
If the cozy aesthetic lures customers into the French stores, then the variety keeps them coming back. A large inventory is sold in bulk: savory and sweet snacks, oils and vinegars, and dry staples such as flour, legumes, and grains. From angel-hair to ziti, I counted 27 kinds of pasta in this store alone. Beyond food and cleaning products, it also sells hygiene products, such as solid toothpaste and shampoo bars made with natural ingredients, and reusable goods, such as washable makeup-removal pads.
All the packaging-free consumables a zero-waste household could dream of. Customers go in with their own containers, weigh them, fill them, and are able to come home with no packaging whatsoever. They buy as little or as much as they need, which means the store provides a solution to the 44 pounds of food—15 pounds of which are unopened—the average French consumer wastes each year, according to a study by French environmental officials.
“Over several years, we’ve noticed a constant decrease in consumers going to supermarkets. They are looking to shop closer to home, but they also want to know more about the products that they purchase, and because of the economic crisis, they look to save money, particularly in food,” Day by Day co-owner Didier Onraita told TakePart. “They also want to consume more responsibly, pollute less, and limit waste. All these factors made us want to launch a store concept that would be close, sell quality products in just the right quantity and without packaging.”
Onraita isn’t new to the grocery store business. After working as a consultant in the retail industry for 25 years, he teamed up with business partner David Sutrat to open the first location of the chain in Meudon, just outside Paris.
The chain now counts nine locations spread out through northern and western France and the Paris suburbs. It received 1,000 franchise requests in 2015. It plans to open 25 more stores by the end of 2016 and aims to have 100 locations by 2018.
Compared with the rest of the continent, the French create more packaging waste per capita, according to the European Environment Agency, an independent advisory body of the European Union. In late 2014, the agency found, in a report that called on businesses to make greener decisions for consumers, that “sustainable ways of satisfying our needs are emerging, but they need more support.”
What may not have been foreseen is that those greener choices can lead to success, as companies like Day by Day meet the needs of the evolving market that the larger distributors fail to adapt to. As people’s interest in reducing waste and the zero-waste lifestyle grow, so does the demand for bulk, and so can the number of franchise locations. The small-shop atmosphere goes beyond promoting contact with the owner to promise access to a variety of bulk foods at prices 5 to 40 percent cheaper than those of big-box stores. At Day by Day, brown rice is 2.1 euros a kilogram—it sells for half a euro more at chain supermarket Auchan. Organic oatmeal is 2.85 euros a kilogram at Day by Day but sells for 4.04 euros a kilogram elsewhere.
The road to success was not, however, a smooth one. As for any commercial start-up, funding and building a clientele were a challenge.
“A lot of consumers doubt the cleanliness of the containers, which is why we systematically dismantle, clean, and dry each container before refilling it. It represents a cost of labor that we had to include in our business model,” Onraita said.
The cleanliness is one reason shoppers have embraced the stores. For restaurateur Sophie Pavillard, shopping in bulk means meeting the bottom line without having to buy and store enormous amounts of premium ingredients, such as the almond and cocoa powders used in popular cakes for diners at Le Sept. “Our clients love them. We do not need to stock those items—we just buy the amount needed, and we come back when we need more,” Pavillard said.
The biggest hurdle for the Day by Day proprietors was getting suppliers of popular products to sell huge amounts of goods without the packaging.
“It’s easy to source packages of 150 grams for items but much harder to find supplies in bags of 5, 10, or 20 kilograms. It takes a lot of convincing to get suppliers to sell products to be resold in bulk and at a price point that will satisfy the consumer,” Onraita said.
To solve the supply problem, the company invested in a warehouse and hired someone to manage the inventory.
It’s not just the French who are fans of Day by Day—entrepreneurs all over the world ask to import the concept to their country.
“We receive many requests from overseas, and we’d of course be happy to eventually expand internationally, but we’re not yet ready to open in other countries—we prefer to first be well established in our own country before exporting our concept elsewhere,” Onraita said.
From what I have learned about and seen of the chain, it’s on track to do just that. And I can only dream that one day, those 27 types of pasta will be available to my family.
In an industry that runs on packaged convenience, self-service bins full of rice, seeds, beans and oats aren’t typically viewed as sources of growth. But thanks to increasing consumer interest in natural and organic products, cooking at home and experimenting with new ingredients, bulk bins are migrating from their traditional homes in natural grocery stores to mainstream retail.
Giant Eagle’s Market District now carries an assortment of spices, nuts, dried fruits and other ingredients, as well as a few attention grabbers, like a make-your-own trail mix station, bulk candy bins and various bulk olive oils. Midwest retailer Hy-Vee offers pasta, cereal, tea, coffee and dozens of other selections in bins positioned inside its stores’ dedicated natural and organic departments. Kroger also has bulked up in recent years, as have Wegmans, H-E-B and other grocers.
Diana Sheehan, director of retail insights with Kantar Retail, said more premium stores — including those owned by mainstream supermarkets — are turning to bulk as a way to help their stores stand out in an increasingly competitive environment.
“These stores are starting to embrace bulk,” Sheehan said. “And it’s less about a natural and organic offer and more about that premium, unique offer.”
The benefits of bulk
Bulk foods generate high margins for retailers and are fairly simple to execute, she said. These sections also tend to be destinations for loyal shoppers. The mere presence of bulk often signals that a store is committed to whole, unprocessed foods at a time when these characteristics are increasingly being sought by shoppers.
For consumers, bulk foods carry the promise of less waste with shoppers taking only what they need. It also offers price savings compared to packaged alternatives. A 2012 study by Portland State University in cooperation with the Bulk is Green Council, an industry trade group, found bulk saved shoppers an average of 89% over packaged varieties. Subsequent reports have tempered that number — Sprouts Farmers Market has estimated its bulk items are typically 15% to 20% cheaper than their packaged counterparts. Regardless of the number, the fact remains that buying in bulk is a money-saver.
Another advantage is that consumers can use it to try unique foods or ingredients that might be difficult to find or considerably more expensive in packaged varieties. Shoppers can find everything from amaranth flour to Himalayan salt and raw cacao nibs to different types of nut butters.
“Bulk is as much an experiential play as anything,” said Sheehan.
Brett Karminski, senior brand manager in the bulk division at Frontier Co-op, a manufacturer specializing in herbs, teas and spices, noted many consumers turned to bulk during the recession, and have stuck with it even as the economy has improved. He said customers recently have shown a high level of interest in herbal teas and cooking spices. Sales of Frontier’s bulk organic hibiscus flowers used to make tea have grown 71% over the past year, while finely ground Himalayan salt has surged 69%.
“We’re seeing a more educated spice consumer who is looking to experiment with new flavors and bulk items they may have learned about through social media and digital influencers,” Karminski told Food Dive in an email.
Todd Kluger, vice president of sales and marketing at Lundberg Family Farms, said he’s seen strong consumer interest in bulk rice and quinoa varieties sold by his company, including sushi rice, short-grain brown rice and tri-color quinoa.
“Being able to experiment with variety, being able to purchase as much or as little as they need, and looking for price to value are all drivers of interest from consumers in the bulk section,” he told Food Dive in an email.
Ward’s Supermarket in Gainesville, Fla., installed its bulk department twenty-five years ago. The section was comprised of sixteen bins, according to natural foods manager Russ Welker. Today, the retailer has 400 bins located in the center of the store, offering everything from roasted peanuts to pasta and hard-to-find flours and spices.
“Being able to experiment with variety, being able to purchase as much or as little as they need, and looking for price to value are all drivers of interest from consumers in the bulk section.”
Vice president of sales and marketing at Lundberg Farms
The top sellers in the department are the traditional bulk offerings — oats, raisins, beans and grains. But Welker said he’s also seeing interest in the trail mixes, cooking flours and spices. Oftentimes, customers will shop the stores’ fresh departments and then stop by the bulk section to pick up herbs and seasonings.
“There are some interesting things happening in the spice section,” Welker told Food Dive. “Indian spices are especially popular right now. People like to buy our produce or seafood and use that seasoning when they’re making meals.”
Welker said bulk not only has helped Ward’s grow sales, but added an aura of health to its aisles.
“Part of the ‘natural’ image is having a bulk department,” he said.
Educating the consumer
Despite their ability to generate sales and healthy vibes within stores, bulk foods face significant barriers. Shoppers are often perplexed by the rows of bins, or simply overwhelmed by choice. Many don’t know what to do with amaranth flour or raw wheat germ, and often opt for packaged foods because they’re more convenient.
That’s why in-store education involving recipes, product definitions and simply how to bag and pay for bulk items is critical, said Sheehan.
“Educating [consumers] about why it works and how to execute that department are going to be critical to the department evolving,” she said.
At Lucky’s Market, a natural and organic chain that operates stores in eleven states, education is an integral part of its bulk department. Shoppers can find instructional signage — including a flowchart on how to use a store-provided bag versus a personal container — along with recipes for spice blends, homemade granola and other items.
Kristen Tetrick, Lucky’s director of marketing and community engagement, said bringing customers up to speed is crucial to helping the grocer sell the more than 300 bulk items on display in each of its stores. Space dedicated to bulk has steadily increased over time, she said, with stores introducing an average of one new item each month. Top sellers right now are bulk candies and chocolate.
“Over the years we have incorporated a lot of savory and sweet snacks in our bulk bins, such as yogurt pretzels, trail mixes, mixed nuts and sesame sticks,” Tetrick told Food Dive in an email.
In addition to a consumer learning curve, bulk’s unique delivery method can become a liability if not properly managed. Filling bags and jars with loose food can be messy, and stray piles of food can make a bulk department appear sloppy. Frontier's Karminski said design innovations in bulk bins have helped with flow control, but messes still happen. The setup also can invite some shoppers to snag a handful of food without paying.
“The challenge with bulk foods is that you need it in stores that are very well serviced from a customer personnel perspective. You want to make sure those items are well taken care of.”
Director of retail insights with Kantar Retail
These challenges raise the potential for dollars lost in the department, which means it’s imperative retailers have at least one staff member on hand to monitor the department. Welker said he always has at least two people “to nurture" the department.
“The challenge with bulk foods is that you need it in stores that are very well serviced from a customer personnel perspective,” said Sheehan. “You want to make sure those items are well taken care of.”
Looking to the future, Sheehan said bulk foods will continue to expand their presence in premium supermarkets. She also predicted growth will increase with regional grocers, which tend to invest more in staffing and are looking to stand out from their large-scale competitors.
“I’m not sure yet if bulk is going to be the next big thing for Kroger, because they’re not staffed that way,” said Sheehan. “Wal-Mart, same thing. But for those strong regional players that have strong levels of personnel, I think you could see an evolution.”
You want to eat better, but you’re worried about what it’ll do to your wallet.
So just how expensive is a healthy diet, anyway?
Good news: The answer may be “not that much.” Eating more healthfully costs about $1.50 more per day per person compared with less nutritious food habits, according to a 2013 Harvard study. As background, the scientists compared a diet based on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish against one based on processed foods, processed meats, and refined grains.
That said, while $1.50 per day is not much if you have a little extra cash in your pocket, the difference over the course of a year adds up to $550 per person, which can be a burden to many people—especially if you multiply that cost by a few family members.
Lindsey Kane, M.S., R.D.N., is a San Francisco-based dietitian who logged some time as a healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods Market—one of the priciest stores around. Her guidance will help you eat well and save money at any supermarket.
Plant-based proteins—think peanut butter, beans, tofu—cost less than meat does. Try occasionally swapping them in for pricier proteins as the main focus of a meal. Never tried tofu? Here’s the best way to cook it.
The bulk bins at any supermarket are savings central. First of all, you’re not paying for fancy packaging. Secondly, you can buy exactly how much you need. Precise buying leads to minimal waste, which equals lower bills. Why spend cash on an extra ½ cup of walnuts that you’ll find a year later growing funk in the back of your pantry?
Fruits and vegetables on ice are not only just as nutritious as fresh produce, they also stay edible much longer. Bonus: Because they’re often blanched before freezing, they require less cooking time than their fresh cousins. Use this recipe for fried rice with frozen vegetables.
They’re almost always cheaper than name brands, and they may fare better than you’d expect, taste-wise. Almost three-quarters of people say the quality of store brands have improved greatly in recent years, according to a 2014 Nielsen survey.
Impulse buying is the fastest way to overspend. Take a few minutes before you head out to the store to write down what you need (or use an app like Out of Milk or Wunderlist) so you’re less likely to pick up pricey extras.
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Bulk saves money 15-35% on average because of no adv. or promotion
It is a WIN-WIN-WIN. (Retailers, Customers, and Environment)
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