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Self-service refill system introduced at Planet Organic

A fully automated self-service refill area has been introduced at Planet OrganicBranded Unpackaged, the section is described by its creator as the world’s first such area. It is trialling in the Muswell Hill branch of the London organic supermarket chain.

The area allows customers to bring empty containers and fill them up with products ranging from oats and balsamic vinegar to three types of quinoa and Ecover cleaning products. It has been masterminded by Catherine Conway, who set up and ran the now defunct Islington corner shop, Unpackaged, to champion a refill culture.

“Planet Organic and I believe that the key to getting refilling into the mainstream is ease, convenience and self-service,” says Conway, who is evangelical about the subject. “Planet Organic is the first UK chain to really put its weight behind the idea that refilling could work in a supermarket setting – with the right technology and demand from customers.”

To make the area – which is part of the store’s recent expansion - function well, Conway wanted the process to be as intuitive and simple as possible. On the wall behind the scales the five steps to using them are illustrated in graphics designed by London design company Multistorey, which handled the whole area’s branding.

A customer weighs his or her empty container and lid on the scales, prints the so-called tare weight label and sticks it to the container.

Once the container is filled, the customer keys in the type of product, enters the weight from the tare weight label and weighs the filled container. A barcoded product label is printed with a cross-reference to the tare weight. The customer adds the second label to the container and proceeds to a conventional check-out.

This double weighing process was devised by the scales manufacturer, Bizerba in Germany, solving the problem of subtracting the container’s weight from the final weight. “Bizerba has a Windows-based system, so they could design the interface,” explains Conway.

Meanwhile the products are displayed in transparent ‘gravity bins’ produced by US company Trade Fixtures. These are Polycarbonate, very durable and have a UV filter protect their contents.

The Unpackaged shop in Islington saw up to 85% of sales going on refill, and Conway would like to achieve those levels in Planet Organic.

The concept will be trialled for a year. “It’s not perfect yet,” admits Conway, who spent less than £10,000 on setting up the area. “If I had enough money I could develop a weighing scale that would do 100% of what I want it to do.” Another solution might be “a load of branded containers” which customers buy as one-off purchases, she says, which would avoid the need to visit the scales twice.

In the meantime, Unpackaged at Planet Organic offers plucky customers some sense of retail theatre and interaction. And in the future, Conway believes that anything – even yoghurt and ready meals - can be sold in refills, if good design is employed.

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