UK supermarket chain Waitrose & Partners has launched its new packaging-free retail concept ‘Waitrose Unpacked’ that could save thousands of tonnes of packaging and plastic.

The pilot has begun in the Waitrose Botley Road store in Oxford, with the packaging being removed from hundreds of products, such as flowers and indoor plants. The store is also testing refillable zones with products such as wine, beer, cereal, coffee and cleaning products.

Waitrose Unpacked will run for 11 weeks until 18 August, with concepts such as a dedicated refillable zone, borrow-a-box scheme and the UK’s first supermarket frozen fruit ‘pick and mix.’

The supermarket chain said the test has been designed to help determine how customers might be prepared to shop differently in the future. Equivalent packaged products will continue to be sold to help the company to compare sales and review the test.

Customers can give feedback via a survey available on the Waitrose Unpacked website and promote the concept via social media with the hashtag #WaitroseUnpacked.

Waitrose & Partners head of CSR Tor Harris said: “We are determined to build on the work we’ve already done to reduce packaging – and this test will take our efforts to a whole new level as we help the growing number of customers who want to shop in a more sustainable way.

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“This test has huge potential to shape how people might shop with us in the future so it will be fascinating to see which concepts our customers have an appetite for. We know we’re not perfect and have more to do, but we believe this is an innovative way to achieve something different.”

This year, the company has introduced a more sustainable label solution for its egg boxes, introduced fibre-based trays for its Italian ready meal range and launched an initiative, with environmental charity Hubbub, to address UK plastic pollution

Waitrose & Partners aims to make all its own-brand packaging widely-recycled, reusable or home compostable by 2023.

Analysts praise Waitrose packaging-free retail concept

GlobalData retail analyst Thomas Brereton said: “Although only a trial, this announcement shows a determined step from Waitrose to meet its ambitious commitments to eliminating unnecessary plastic and packaging, building on the £1m fund pledged in May to five organisations at the forefront of plastic reduction and its backing of the UK Plastics Pact in March.

“Sustainability will certainly be one of retail’s buzzwords for the next decade, with the ‘Blue Planet effect’ rapidly changing consumers’ opinions on issues of sustainability. GlobalData’s Monthly Tracker survey for March showed 94% of consumers believe it is the responsibility of retailers to act sustainably and 80% believe retailers are currently not doing enough to address such issues.”

He added: “Strong sustainability credentials are also a more important issue for Waitrose than for other retailers, with the most sustainability conscious demographics (generally older, female and more affluent shoppers) significantly overlapping with Waitrose’s core customer base, where over half of shoppers are 55+ years old.

“But long-term success of the trial will depend on Waitrose’s ability to integrate these novel concepts in store. Waitrose must ensure that other points of differentiation (the quality credentials of the products, instore visual merchandising etc.) are not compromised as a result – although sustainability is of growing concern to shoppers, it lags behind criteria of customer service and quality in importance when choosing a supermarket.”

GlobalData consumer analyst William Grimwade said: “Consumers are likely to enjoy the more personal and less mainstream experience of filling your own refillable containers, as 64% of UK consumers say their product choices are shaped by how enjoyable/unique a product is. Furthermore, 59% of UK consumers’ choices are shaped by how familiar and trust-worthy a product feels.

“Refillable shopping could give Waitrose a localist, friendly appeal over other nearby supermarkets. On top of this, excessive plastic use has become an increasingly important issue to consumers and 65% of UK consumers see refillable or reusable containers as a factor in environmentally friendly packaging.”