Zero-waste markets want to shake up grocery shelves, and your shopping

The nation’s first zero-waste grocery store, In.gredients, opened in 2012 in Austin, Texas. It was a small grocery store, just 1,400 square feet, with a big mission: no waste.

“The original idea was to be as package-free as possible while providing a grocery experience,” explained Erica Howard Cormier, the store’s former general manager. Most of the food was sold in bulk and housed in gravity bins. Items for purchase included dry goods like grains and nuts, locally sourced produce and liquids such as soap, soda, oil and vinegar. Customers used their own packaging for almost all of the products including eggs. Cormier said the store had a 70 percent package-free rate with a goal to increase the percentage every year.

But the store’s packaging goals came at a significant cost.

“We realized after 18 months we weren’t changing shoppers habits,” Cormier said. “You have to plan a lot to go to the grocery store with your own containers and people would go to the store across the street because they forgot their container.”

Another reason customers shopped elsewhere was to buy must-have items which were not available at In.gredients, like a six-pack of beer, potato chips and turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The store was losing business and decided to shift its focus. It dropped the package-free mission but maintained a commitment to zero waste by aggressively focusing on food. “We did not send food waste to the landfill,” Cormier said. But despite its best efforts, In.gredients closed in April as a result of low sales.

In.gredients co-founder Christian Lane still believes in the business model and says it could work if taken to scale. “Convenience stores aren’t very big, but if you can get a number of those going and centralize buying, marketing, accounting and human resources and all those kinds of things, you can get economies of scale to make it work.”

Lane said In.gredients was close to making the model work — it was open for five years, supported local growers, and provided some vendors with their first retail exposure, which led them to subsequent success— but when the lease came up for renewal the founders decided to close the doors, given the low sales and lack of profitability. Lane is currently focused on another entrepreneurial endeavor — a technology consulting business that existed before the store.

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