Time-strapped customers are turning their backs on greener ways of shopping as life returns to normal after the Covid pandemic, a business owner has said.
Owain George said his charging business had thrived during the lockdown, but people had returned to convenience.
He said a misconception refill is more expensive than what supermarkets have made difficult during the cost of living crisis.
It has suspended its mobile charging service at Vale of Glamorgan and reduced the opening hours of its Ogmore-by-Sea store.
Another county charging company, Awesome Wales, is closing one of its three stores.
In 2018, the TV series Blue Planet II highlighted the scale of marine pollution, prompting many to reduce single-use plastic.
But have buyers stocked up on refills? Could shopping at zero waste stores actually save them money?
Owain created Weigh To Go Refill during the Covid pandemic two years ago.
It has a mobile refill van that visits rural areas so customers can fill their own jars and bottles with everything from dry pasta to hand wash, avoiding wrappers.
This year, he opened a shop in his native village.
What started as dynamic lockdown activity has become harder to sustain as life returns to normal post-pandemic, he said.
“It doesn’t allow me to earn a salary. It doesn’t bring me enough money to pay my bills at home,” he said.
“I’ve taken the van off the road for now, the store is open two days a week and I’ve taken work elsewhere.”
Owain was inspired to start his business after working as a snowboard instructor in the French Alps for 12 years, where he witnessed increasingly warm winters due to climate change.
He started selling goods from his van at markets, which was an instant hit with customers who were more comfortable shopping outside, before taking him to various locations. rural Vale of Glamorgan.
“People were working from home, people had time off and maybe had time for those little changes in habits that they thought about doing,” he said.
But things started to change when Wales came out of lockdown.
“People went back to offices, schedules got busier again, new habits that weren’t quite ingrained kind of disappeared,” he said.
He opened his store in his home village in the spring and was sure it would be a hit as the only other place selling groceries in the village is the post office and it is a 20 minute drive to a another refill store.
“It’s been a struggle if I’m being honest,” he said.
“It’s a struggle to get people there.”
So what’s stopping people from shopping at a zero-waste store like Owain’s?
“There’s a common misconception that it’s more expensive to shop at a refill store and I don’t know where that came from,” he said.
He said that, weight for weight, many items, such as herbs and spices, were considerably cheaper in zero waste stores than in supermarkets.
“The bottom line about zero waste shopping is that you only pay for what you need…you can just walk in and get 450g of pasta or 10g of fennel seeds if that’s what you need for your meals,” he said.
“But it takes a little more thought about how you shop and it takes most people changing their habits.”
He said it was hard to compete with the convenience of a big supermarket: “If you can sit on the sofa with a glass of wine and an app on your phone and get your delivery for the next day, that will be a easier option. a lot of time,” he said.
Dr Nicole Koenig-Lewis, a lecturer in marketing at Cardiff Business School, agreed, saying it was difficult to get consumers to change their habits.
“There is a disjunction between attitudes and behaviors; thus, even though consumers may explicitly report positive attitudes towards sustainable packaging solutions, this may not reflect their underlying attitudes and subsequent behavior, which may be guided by habit, emotions and impulses at the point of purchase,” she says.
She said the cost of living crisis was also having an impact, making consumers more cautious about their spending habits.
“This includes preference for online shopping but also convenience, which includes saving fuel by avoiding multiple trips,” she said.
She said many types of local, independent, community and smaller stores are currently going through a tough time due to rising energy costs, rising rents and low footfall.
Amy Greenfield and her partner opened their first Awesome Wales zero waste store in Barry in July 2019.
Their Cowbridge store followed in 2020 and they opened a fruit and veg stand at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff a few months ago.
But the Cowbridge shop is closing.
Amy said the Cowbridge store had ‘never really had a chance to thrive’ as Wales found itself in a fire shutdown the week after it opened.
She also said shopping habits in Barry and Cowbridge were very different, with Barry’s customers buying little and often.
“It’s just not the buying behavior in a more affluent area,” she said.
“It seems to us that people who have the luxury of having more choice and more money to spend might choose the convenience option over the zero waste option – that’s our experience anyway.”
Amy also thinks zero-waste businesses could help cash-strapped customers get spending under control.
Since the crisis took hold, it has seen an increase in customers, but said average shopping cart spend was lower.
She said their bulk fruits and vegetables were popular because they allowed customers “a bit of variety in their fruit bowl without having to buy multiple pre-packaged options.”
“You can buy exactly what you need, you don’t have to be forced to buy a bag of six apples, you can buy one or two,” she said.
Amy said overall Awesome Wales, which is run as a social enterprise, has gotten stronger and stronger – in lockdown they once sold eight tonnes of bread flour in a week.
She said the Barry store supports other green projects such as a diaper library and a “stuff library” where you can borrow things you need but don’t have.
She said the pandemic had led to more people working flexibly from home, allowing more of their clients to travel during the week – but they hadn’t retained all the clients they had gained during the pandemic.
“Some people were desperate for our services at the start of the lockdown when they couldn’t access things elsewhere, but we didn’t see them stick around, their loyalty didn’t really stick,” she said.
Y Ty Gwyrdd zero waste store and cafe opened in Denbigh in June 2021.
Its director of operations, Marguerite Pearce, said everything was going well.
“I don’t want to tempt fate, but overall I would say attendance has gradually increased as we have developed a regular clientele over this period,” she said.
“We’re seeing the usual lows in retail after Christmas and in September when schools resume…but it’s nice to have quieter periods to catch up on jobs,” she said.
What future for zero waste shopping?
Amy would like to see more stores like hers flourish, but would also like to see Wales follow France’s lead and pass green legislation that would require supermarkets to replace plastic packaging with refill stations.
“I think without that, it’s very unlikely that big retailers will change and offer more options than people really want,” she said.
But Dr Koenig-Lewis is not convinced that recharging options in supermarkets are the way to go and said that while it would make recharging more common, consumers appreciate the convenience and may lose interest once the novelty has worn off.
She does not predict growth of independent zero waste stores in the current economic climate.
“They have a rather niche target market and often a limited product line,” she said.
“The general public may not be very familiar with these stores and know a lot about how they work…there is always a need to raise awareness about zero waste stores and how they support the environment and the local community .”
Owain remains positive and hopes to get his van back on the road in the new year.
“I now hope to rebuild,” he said.
For him, it’s more than a business – living by the sea, he sees the environmental impact of single-use plastic packaging on a daily basis.
“It’s washed up on shore every day.”
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