The pandemic has forced many grocery retailers to shift toward an online home delivery model. But nailing the home delivery experience is difficult. From managing and planning delivery routes to keeping customers happy and ensuring the business stays profitable, there are tons of factors that can potentially make the process overwhelming.
Layer on top of that the fact that home delivery can often create a lot of waste — the use of cardboard and plastic, tons of greenhouse gas emissions because of miles driven inefficiently — and you end up with a complex problem. After all, sustainability is a central concern for those interested in delivering food to consumers. These businesses often care passionately about supporting local food systems, farmers, and protecting the environment.
And consumers are showing a deep interest in sustainability as well. A 2019 survey by Hotwire found that 47% of internet users had ditched products and services from a brand that violated their personal values, where protecting the environment topped the list. With both businesses and consumers looking at sustainability, there is a growing trend of grocery retailers moving toward a zero-waste delivery model, looking to understand how to do it well.
Luckily, we have some friends that have been working towards a zero-waste delivery solution for a while, even though things have become even more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Ditch the cardboard
“Grocery stores and supermarkets have gotten really good at selling boxed air,” said Jason Shaw of Hoole Food Market. He observed that a lot of the product he received when working in supermarkets came in packaging that was mostly empty and wasted. “In 95% of homes, all of that excess packaging is going to either be recycled, or go straight to landfill. And neither of those options is particularly good.”
Hoole Food Market started with a mission of creating a more sustainable world to live in. As a team, they focus on sustainability to minimize the environmental impact of their business. And when delivery demand surged during the pandemic — from 10 deliveries a day to upwards of 100 deliveries a day — they remained consistent with their mission.
Jason sums up their zero-waste delivery strategy with one statement: “We reuse. Reuse is infinitely better than recycling.”
The Hoole Food Market team uses wooden market boxes or crates instead of cardboard boxes. This allows them to pick up the crates during their next delivery and reuse them for future deliveries.
With the constant drop off and pick up of reused boxes, there is never an empty trip, and their vans are always filled. “We find it incredibly wasteful to drive around the countryside with an empty vehicle. We can plan out our routes to redistribute empty bins to other smaller retailers before coming back home.”
Keeping containers hygienic is of utmost importance, especially in the middle of a pandemic. “In order to keep using these containers, we have to wash them — rinse them out and wipe them down thoroughly before the next use. We keep doing that until these containers are no longer usable.”
Keep your container inventory organized
Working towards zero-waste involves a lot of planning: from sourcing local foods, to repackaging in sustainable and reusable containers, to managing the online grocery delivery experience. It’s a huge time commitment and financial investment. But one that is worthwhile for businesses who carry sustainability as their core reason for being.
“Success with a zero-waste delivery program has a lot to do with being organized and being able to track your assets,” said Jeff Pastorius, founder of On The Move Organics, a business that has delivered high quality local and organic food to communities across southwestern Ontario for more than a decade.
On The Move Organics makes their deliveries in large Rubbermaid bins, and smaller items are packaged in glass jars within the bins. Once an order has been delivered, they pick up the previous orders' box and return it to the packing facility to be sanitized, and prepped for another delivery. So there are a lot of moving parts to this operation, and there is always the possibility that customers don’t return the containers.
“If you are not organized and ready for a zero-waste, returnable packaging model, it can actually turn into a liability very quickly,” explained Jeff. “But if you plan ahead, you can actually increase your margins.”
Knowing who has your containers, and when they need to be picked up and taken to their next destination are important pieces of information to keep track of. This helps to manage the number of containers you lose which quickly increases your costs.
“People will often pay a deposit of $1 on a jar, and this would normally cover the cost of disposable packaging. So, even if the customer doesn’t return the jar, we’ve offset the cost, and reduced risk — all while maintaining our zero-waste strategy,” Jeff said.
But even with the best strategies, getting a zero-waste program to work efficiently takes time and effort. Jeff’s team spent time converting a space they owned into a packaging facility dedicated to enhancing the delivery program. “Responding to delivery demand on the fly without a dedicated space is inefficient, so making this adjustment was important to us, especially during the pandemic.”
Go above and beyond to achieve zero-waste
Delivered Fresh, an online grocery store that brings together products from 57 local Pennsylvania farmers, has a zero-waste delivery program that encourages customers to get involved with the zero-waste delivery process.
In order to have contactless deliveries and reduce the amount of cardboard packaging used, Delivered Fresh works with their customers. “We ask that our customers leave a cooler outside on their porch to receive deliveries,” explained David Nowacoski, Operations Manager at Delivered Fresh. “When we get to the residence, we transfer the items from our cooler into theirs. If they don’t leave a cooler out for us, we have insulated zippered canvas bags that we leave and charge them $5 for.”
Having a cooler present is essential for delivering fresh food in a zero-waste delivery model. Since you are dealing with perishable goods, the longer you can keep things cool, the longer you can keep things fresh. Involving the customer allows you to do this. But it’s not without challenges.
“Would it be faster to drop off a cardboard box? Absolutely,” reflected David. “Working towards zero-waste delivery in the middle of a pandemic is a time-consuming process.”
In addition to the routes driven, David’s delivery drivers must now take the extra step of unpacking and repacking groceries from their own coolers to the coolers on their customer’s porch, increasing the time each delivery takes. There are also extra sanitization measures taken every time a cooler is brought back to the facility.
“Sometimes, efficiency can take a big hit because it requires going above and beyond,” David admits. “But we hate waste so much that it’s worth it to figure out how to do this well.”
Educate customers about zero-waste delivery
“Culturally, we're accustomed to the cardboard box and the disposable package,” said Jeff Pastorius from On the Move Organics. “People aren't used to returning stuff — let alone cleaning it, packaging it together, and then giving it back.”
But as businesses move towards more sustainable delivery models, the way consumers learn about zero-waste is changing.
“Right now, it’s a niche market segment,” continued Jeff. “But if we want zero-waste delivery to continue growing, we all have to do more to educate our customers about how to work with us.”
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Suzanne Ma is a former journalist and published author turned co-founder at Routific, a route optimization platform. She loves to capture inspiring stories from small business entrepreneurs, and share their journeys of growth alongside Routific. As a Product Marketer, she ensures that the community stays up to date on the latest innovations at Routific.
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