Has Waitrose Asked The Right Question – Why Did We Package Dry Goods In The First Place?

So Waitrose is doing something about all that packaging that attends today’s hyperconsumerism. They’re allowing us all to rock up with our own bags and buy the dry goods we desire straight from a bulk container into our own.

How excellent.

So, to as the Chesterton’s Fence question. Why did we start packaging dry goods in the first place? The answer being that we found we had less waste that way. Sealed packaging is rather more difficult for weevils, flies, rats to get into. So, they ate less of the expensively grown food that we wanted to chow down upon.

Has that reason disappeared as yet?

Waitrose has unveiled its vision of environmentally conscious shopping, offering customers the chance to buy food and drink that is completely free of packaging as part of a ground-breaking trial for a large retailer. In a new drive to try to eliminate unnecessary plastic and packaging, shoppers will be able to fill their own containers with a range of products from a series of dispensers, using the first dedicated refill station installed by a major UK supermarket. In a trial starting this week at a Waitrose supermarket in Oxford, customers are being given refillable options for products including wine and beer, rice and cleaning materials, with prices typically 15% cheaper than the packaged alternatives.

So here’s the question. Sure, packaging costs money. Now, when we add back in the wastage we’ll get from not having the packaging will those products still be cheaper? No, not will Waitrose continue to charge less for them – there are such things as loss leaders to fashion – but will the loss of the costs of the packaging be more than outweighed by the loss of the item or not?

Obviously, once you’ve got teenage buys dicking around with the dispensers the losses will be greater. But in average use? We’re going to have to wait and see, aren’t we?

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BarksintheCountryBemusedOnlookerClimanJonathan HarstonQ46 Recent comment authors
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The Mole
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The Mole

How much was the change brought about from being served by a shop keeper behind a counter (who could measure it out and prevent mixing etc) to super markets where historically it would have been challenging to weigh everything on traditional scales at the till? That is, was wastage the cost or human labour and technology the actual key factor? Judging from the photo Waitrose will get people to weigh their own produce which minimizes the human workforce costs – I’m assuming you weigh your container first so that only the food is charged for? Wonder how they are going… Read more »

Q46
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Q46

The original technological change from bulk being individually packaged and priced on demand, to goods being already weighed, packaged and priced for customers to pick off the shelf was a saving in cost of labour. It was also a saving in waiting time for customers. Therefore customer throughput, sales volume and cash flow in a supermarket was far higher than a traditional store. And this is likely to be a problem Waitrose will reinvent, long queues of people waiting to fill up their containers at its dispensing machines, or having to wait while dispensers are refilled, or customers finding empty… Read more »

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

Seal-pack goods came around about 150 years before self-serve supermarkets. In one way, they are one of the innovations of the Victorian era. With a seal pack and a recognisable brand on the label you knew what quality you were buying, and the producers had a brand to protect so were incentivised to seal and brand their products. One of the reasons butchers and fish shops lasted longer into the supermarket era was that it was difficult to seal and pack a side of pork, and the customer/producer trust relationship was directly through the retailer, who you often observed preparing… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

Wonderful, buying cornflakes that people have had their grubby mits in.

Q46
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Q46

Gives them flavour… a good sneeze helps too.

Q46
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Q46

‘…cleaning materials…’ Yes because that’s just what we want, corrosive and toxic liquids and solids in lemonade bottles or jam jars, or margarine tubs, in kitchen cupboards for children and adults to mistake as food and drink. Refilling old containers means control to ensure the label declaration describes contents is lost. So I predict. There will be a number of mishaps, some inconvenient, others life threatening. Waitrose will then have to introduce a supervised labelling procedure at point of filling, and that’s where the cost will go up and the alleged savings on packaging disappear – and the cost of… Read more »

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

Beer and wine (and presumably pop) on dispensers? You only want drinks dispensed as you’re about to drink it, not to take home for storage.

Climan
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Climan

Plastic is perfect for food packaging, waterproof, airtight, transparent and light. Armchair eco-worriers with their DIY packaging are not going to improve anything, and will do damage via wastage and time delays at checkouts, without barcodes.

BemusedOnlooker
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BemusedOnlooker

Tim Newman had a good take on other factors in this: http://www.desertsun.co.uk/blog/8694/ I would add that Waitrose has previous when it comes to spurious environmental virtue-signalling that ultimately is all about them cutting costs. Time was, if you had a Waitrose card and made a purchase, you could get a free cup of coffee. It was a paper cup, with a thin plastic lid. The paper cup would decompose in, what, a year or so? The plastic lid obviously longer. But to prove how green their bleedin’ little environmental hearts are, Waitrose changed the rules: you could only have a… Read more »

BarksintheCountry
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BarksintheCountry

Getting us prepared for the return to the 1850’s to deal with global warming.