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9 practices retailers can adopt to reduce food waste

A retailer, a consultant and a food waste expert offer practical advice for your store.

Food waste is a gigantic global issue. About one-third of all produce is wasted—that’s 1.3 billion tons and nearly a trillion dollars annually, according to Chris Baker, partner at management consulting firm Oliver Wyman. What’s more, the overall cost of waste increases the further down the supply chain it occurs. "If a tomato rolls off a cart in the field, that’s not good," Baker says. "But it’s much more costly if a tomato spoils on your shelf after it’s been trucked from the farm to a warehouse to a distribution center to you." While zero food waste isn’t a reality, there’s plenty you can do to minimize it in your store. 

Share scraps for compost. Our juice bar produces lots of pulp, as well as citrus peels, pineapple greens and other compostable scraps. Most of this is organic and, whenever possible, local. We bag it all up and offer it to customers to take home for free. They can use it as compost for their gardens or to spread out for their chickens. We put the bags of scraps in a galvanized bin by our juice and coffee bar, and customers know they can help themselves.

Don’t ditch ugly produce. Produce items that are bruised or not quite pretty enough to be on the floor go into a "quarter bin" back in our employee area. Everything costs 25 cents. Employees really appreciate this and use it all the time—we love imperfect fruits and veggies! For the produce that’s close to the end of its life or just not consumable, we have a program in which someone picks it up and brings it to feed the bears at nearby Maymont, a large Richmond estate with natural animal habitats.

Help growers curtail loss. One time a farm that we regularly purchase from told us they had an excess of tomatoes and couldn’t find a buyer. They didn’t want them to go to waste, so they asked if we could help offer the tomatoes to a food bank. We bought them at cost and donated them in partnership with the farm. This allowed the farm to avoid taking a total loss while providing fresh food for people in need. We did this all in the name of goodwill and helping food not go to waste. Consider offering this solution to the growers you work with.

—Taylor Richardson,
manager of The Beet Café and marketing coordinator
at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond, Virginia

Set reasonable waste-reduction goals. By understanding where waste is generated, you can set ambitious but realistic reduction targets. There’s massive variation across categories and even within categories. Realistic targets per store and per category depend on store size. Going from 5 percent to 3 percent food waste in a high-volume store makes a bigger impact than going from 12 percent to 10 percent in a smaller store. Start in one or two locations, show what can be done and have your other stores follow.

Downsize displays. There’s this old mantra of "pile ’em high, watch ’em fly." In reality, if you pile high, produce on the bottom gets crushed, causing waste. Plus, there’s just way more inventory out there than what will realistically sell, so it becomes “pile ’em high, watch ’em die.” To do larger displays well, showcase enough product so there’s good selection and you don’t need to replenish every 10 minutes but not so much that days’ worth of inventory is just sitting there.

Plan promotions carefully. Promotions are a self-inflicted wound. They’re key to driving traffic but create a lot of volatility, leading to uncertainty around what’ll sell and prompting retailers to hold more stock and waste more. Think very carefully about promos and have the proper measurements and insights to figure out the right level of promotionality. Retailers are often surprised to learn that the promos they think drive the most traffic don’t add much incremental value. Don’t be afraid to do markdowns after promos, either. They cost margin, but it’s better to get some margin than none.

—Chris Baker,
partner and co-leader of retail and consumer practice
at Oliver Wyman

Staff appropriately. If you’re understaffed or your employees aren’t properly trained, it can lead to poor product handling, which can increase spoilage. This is especially challenging for retailers who have high employee turnover. If you don’t have people rotating product, it can look bad on display. Or maybe produce handling in the back isn’t getting the attention it needs because of short staff. There are specific ways to stack certain products, place items in the refrigerator or freezer, avoid bruising bananas and avocados, and so on, so be sure to schedule enough well-trained employees.

Be proactive about case sizes. Preset case sizes generate a lot of food waste because if there are 40 tomatoes per pack and you only want 60, you’re locked into buying 80. Some bigger retailers may collaborate with suppliers to create different case sizes or mix and match at the distribution center to ensure the right amount of a product comes into the store. Or really try to plan your deli, salad bar and grab-and-go offerings around using extras from a case.

Help customers cut waste. Why not sell reusable storage containers designed to prolong specific products’ shelf life? This is a great opportunity to merchandise and message that you’re a community partner in making sure food gets used up. If you do this well, it can be a good value-add. Build an endcap where you sell storage solutions and share stats about food waste and ideas for consumers. At some stores in the U.K., storage tips for 20 fruits and veggies are written right on the disposable produce bags, and signage throughout the stores explains how consumers can waste less.

—Dana Gunders,
senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s
Food and Agriculture Program

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