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Seminar Report: Some Thoughts on “Retailing Without Waste” in Kyoto. (Part 2)

By Murr-ma

Seminar participants were invited to share questions for Totoya in advance, when they submitted their application. To our surprise, we received far more questions than we expected! In this and the following report (Part 3), we will share some of them with you.

“Selling by weight” is not the goal. The goal is to achieve zero-waste.

Q01: First of all, it has now been approximately a year and a half since you opened your main store in Kyoto. What has been the response from your customers, and do you have a sense that the concept of selling by weight is beginning to catch on?

Response: When we first opened, although many people came in from all over the country, many of them were probably not from Kyoto. It was only after perhaps six months or so that we finally started to see an increase in the number of people who actually live here. We are generally able to tell where our LINE members live, so we know that half of our current 4,500 or so members are from outside of Kyoto Prefecture. Clearly, we still have a long way to go in terms of building any sort of loyal customer base right here at home.

Q02: You have also been trying mobile sales, right? How has that been going?

Response: For our returnable deposit containers, we developed a system that even people using our mobile vending locations are able to use. This has made our regular customers coming from far away very happy.

Q03: I had not expected that many customers would try to use their own containers with the mobile stores. But actually quite a nice flow has evolved, hasn’t it, between the main store and the mobile stores?

Response: Yes, that’s right. With mobile sales, we go out to the customers’ neighborhoods, so they can easily run back home to get their containers. Thanks to that, I think perhaps more people are using their own containers with the mobile sales.

Q04: Ready-to-eat meal pouches and other packaged prepared foods have been increasing in your store recently.

Response: We were originally planning to offer ready-to-eat meal pouches in order to avoid food loss. Almost all of our packaged and prepared foods are sold in returnable deposit containers. We chose this route as part of our overall goal of achieving zero waste. Every choice we make, we try to keep that goal in mind.

In France, leafy salad greens are often sold without any packaging or covering.

Q05: Is this really how people shop in France?

Response: When I am in France, I go shopping at the market every week and this is how vegetables, like these salad greens, are sold. Customers use their hands, take however much they want, and put them in their own containers or reusable paper bags that the store provides. Even meats (raw and/or processed) are usually unwrapped, so people can use their own containers for those, too. This is a relatively rural area, but if you want to start reducing waste, there are options available for everyone to take on the challenge right away.


But if retailers are reluctant to change…

Q06: I'm also wondering what kind of return rate you are getting with the deposit containers.

Response: We have been keeping data on this, and we are getting back about 40%. However, our deposit containers are jars and bottles, which people find quite convenient. So it is possible that items borrowed a few months back only get returned much later. So that 40% might not be for just one month. It is really difficult to determine, but my sense is that the return rate is higher than we had expected. After all, at 150 yen per container, people probably aren’t throwing them away. Even if they end up just sitting on a shelf for a while, at that price they aren’t going to wind up in the trash. So I think a lot of the deposit containers will get back to us eventually.

Q07: How many people do you think are using the deposit containers?

Response: A good percentage of first-time visitors who live in the neighborhood show an interest in trying the deposit system. Even regular customers bringing their own containers seem quite willing to use them when, for example, they try a new product. And that is more-or-less what we had planned on (laughs).

Q08: So it seems as though the deposit containers might be helping to boost sales. By the way, how do you sanitize the containers?

Response: Until recently, we used to wash them all ourselves, in the store, and then sterilize them in a convection oven. However, recently we have started working with Yoshikawa Shoten, a bottle recycling facility down in Fushimi (Kyoto Prefecture).

Q09: So you are getting some help. But what about containers brought in by customers?

Response: We try to make it clear to customers that they should use their own containers at their own risk. I think the same situation applies with major restaurant chains that allow customers to use their own cups. We ask them to be sure to only bring in clean containers. If we were to notice a customer attempting to use a clearly inappropriate container, we might ask them to think twice. But so far we have never had such a case.

Q010: I would also like to ask about your purchasing from manufacturers, using returnable boxes and bags. It takes a lot of time and effort, so some manufacturers are willing to work with you, but others not. How did you deal with this issue?

Response: First, we contact companies that handle products we want, and let them know about our project. When we discuss together how we would like to stock their products, they are often quite sympathetic. After all, many of these companies deal with natural and organic foods, and often share our goals. But they also comment that it is difficult for them to change their business model, unless retailers change too.

With large companies, this can be a big challenge. They usually already have their own established container operation, and it is a lot of trouble for them to make changes just for us. However, Wadaman (organic sesame, furikake, etc., and Doi (kelp, furikake, etc.,, both long-established companies, have been willing to revise their systems. The presidents of both companies were already concerned by the amount of waste they were producing. They have made some significant changes to their operations, and still cooperate with us in various ways.

Comment: That sounds like an excellent relationship. Maybe both the producers and the retailers had mistakenly thought that the other would never be willing to change.

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