Austin-based in.gredients, which earned wide press coverage for becoming "the first package-free and zero waste grocery store in the United States," quietly announced that they will focus on other goals (like zero waste) but start to offer more packaged foods.
The aim for in.gredients was to be a zero-waste store, offering a majority of products in bulk, and encouraging customers to bring their own containers to reduce waste. At the time of its opening in August 2012, the store was estimated to be 92 percent zero-waste and package free, with the pursuit of 100 percent held back due to local and statewide restrictions around food safety.
"It's not every day that you get to walk away from a grocery store with little to no packaging," co-founder Joseph Lane said in a press release that marked the store's acceptance of The Austin Chronicle's "2012 Best New Local Business" award. "It makes you feel good knowing you are walking away with just food."
In a note on its website in May, however, the founders wrote that while its "package free" model garnered a host of praise and support, "the numbers from our first 21 months of business paint a different picture than we had hoped."
In a FAQ section, the challenges of avoiding packaged products were detailed.
"Let's face it, branding and marketing works," the founders wrote. "How a product is packaged definitely helps sell the product, particularly if it is something new or unfamiliar to the customer. Plus, some products that are very popular with customers aren't available or feasible package free (chips, for example). Another issue is visualizing quantities. When a customer sees tea priced at $45.00/lb the initial thought is, 'Wow! That's expensive', but a pound of tea makes approximately 226 servings of tea, so it comes out to only $0.20/cup for high quality tea."
Slow-selling bulk items are being phased out to make "room for products that will be more popular and help support our continued operation."
The founders don't see the shift as abandoning its ambitious environmental and social ethos but rather honing "in on what's most important to our customers and, therefore, our success." The founders added, "Going forward our three guiding principles will be zero waste, local food, and community. By narrowing our mission, we can do all three better and make sure we're around for the duration."
The shift by in.gredients comes as a similar store in London, Unpackaged, closed in December 2013 after a year in business. Still, the first package-free, zero-waste supermarket set to open in Germany this summer, Original Unpacked (Original Unverpackt), is garnering wide press in that country and across environmentally friendly blogs.
How strong is the push from consumers for reduced packaging from brands and retail in general?