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Seminar Report: Some Thoughts on “Retailing Without Waste” in Kyoto. (Part 1)

By Murr-ma

On January 26, 2023, despite an overnight snow storm and icy roads, Kurun.Kyoto’s first seminar on reducing retail waste in Kyoto attracted a large audience. Little wonder, as the guest speaker, Atsuko Umeda, was introducing Totoya, Inc (link). The small Kyoto supermarket has been getting a lot of attention recently for its unusual business model of selling all its products by weight. The event was held in the QUESTION building, on the corner of Kawaramachi-Oike. What follows is the first of a five-part report on Umeda-san’s talk.

What is “Totoya?”

Totoya launched in 2017, and now operates both the main Kyoto store, as well as nue, by Totoya Kokubunji, in Tokyo. In addition, Totoya is working to promote waste-free retailing nationwide by providing start-up support for other sell-by-weight stores, as well as developing wholesale businesses, mobile sales, and pop-up stores.

“We’re doing this not to increase the number of our own directly managed stores but rather, as a business model, to encourage others to join us,” explained Umeda-san.

nue by Totoya Kokubunji

nue, by Totoya Kokubunji, is a business model that can be operated by 2 to 3 people in as little as 500-700 square feet, with monthly sales of 1-2 million yen. Since it’s difficult to run a kitchen in such a small space, nue doesn’t deal with fresh or perishable prepared foods. Instead, it features a large selection of dry goods, liquid seasonings, detergents, and other eco-friendly daily necessities.

the main Kyoto store

However, Totoya’s larger main Kyoto store (with over 2,000 square feet), is able to offer fresh and frozen foods, miso, tofu, natto, and 20 prepared dishes. The variety of its product lineup closely resembles that of a traditional supermarket.

“Our purpose is to make waste-free shopping feel both convenient and normal,” said Ms. Umeda. The Kyoto store features cutting edge technologies, such as:

  • e.sense an automatic sensor system that recognizes which product has been put in a container.

  • RFID Labeling an IC chip that records container tare weights and automatically subtracts that weight when containers are placed on the scale.

  • AI Scale SM6000 an AI system that can identify vegetables and fruits when placed on the scale.

  • Subtractive Scales showing in real time how much product is being put into a container.

In an effort to continually improve these technologies, Totoya is collaborating with Teraoka Seiko, a leading developer of measuring instruments.

While shoppers are encouraged to bring your own containers, for convenience, Totoya also offers the convenience of spontaneous shopping by providing containers and using a deposit system. A deposit jar costs 150 yen and is fully refundable if returned clean with the lid on. Stainless steel lunch boxes, good for shopping for prepared foods, are also available for loan if you register as a member.

Totoya is committed to reducing not only packaging waste, but also food loss. They refer to their strategy as “Triple Cropping,” after a farming practice where three crops are planted and harvested in a single season from the same field.

  1. Create prepared dishes from perishable foods before they go bad.

  2. Offer a variety of prepared dishes for lunches, etc. in the restaurant.

  3. Process any surplus as packaged, ready-to-eat meals.

Totoya’s zero-waste efforts extend even further. For example, the company utilizes reusable, returnable bags and boxes for stocking, and encourages wholesalers to avoid throwing away packaging. Staff members weigh whatever waste is unavoidable, and track and share the information, encouraging each other to “reduce even further next time.”

Umeda-san surprised the audience by sharing some actual data. For example, from December 16th to 29th, Totoya recorded taking out the trash three times — only once for plastics. Before that, they’d disposed of plastics on October 31. Only roughly once every two months!

A number of producers share an interest in Totoya’s goals and ideals. On its website, Totoya publishes a pamphlet titled “Dear Producers,” introducing its waste-free operation, and encouraging more producers to join in and support Totoya’s work.

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