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Bulk Shops. Buying packaging free

2 January 2017 Green Case History
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One of the most meaningful answers for people trying to produce less waste is the opportunity to buy unpackaged. Find out my advices for entrepreneurs interested in the opening of a new shop!

With a design and a business perspective, I want to explore the success of the bulk shops and the unpackaged groceries and supermarkets growing throughout all Europe and the USA.

There’s a phenomenon spreading around the world in the last few years, this is the Zero Waste Movement, a movement of people trying to go zero waste. Entrepreneurs investing in zero waste business models and bulk shops, but we can also include those thousand of people decluttering their lives and trying to live with less. 

After the bestseller “A zero waste Home” from Bea Johnson and many other successful bloggers, a second wave of people changing their habits is spreading all over the internet world. People dispensing tips and tricks about how to reduce your own footprint bringing your containers and cans to the supermarket, decluttering your closet, buying local and organic. This movement has inspired the opening of new zero packaging stores. 



I remember my mother telling me about when, in her youth, she was going every week to the local grocery to buy sugar into a blue wrap paper, or flour and cereals from jute sacks. In Italy, in the ‘50, even cigarettes were sold without packaging. Maybe, for this reason, is Italy a pioneer in this sector with many small packaging-free shops and franchises. Today after years of corporations investing on marketing and packaging to push the sales, there’s an inverted tendency taking place: shops and supermarkets without packaging. These stores are growing all around Europe, but also in the US, and it seems to be functioning pretty well. The presence of online “ambassadors” of a zero waste lifestyle is having a positive impact on the people’s behavior, making the sustainable way of life more fashion and cooler than before. Buying local, organic and unpackaged isn’t anymore something nostalgic or only for a niche, but a trend that inspires every day more people to be sustainable and aware of our environmental impact.



But how does it work a zero packaging shop? And what makes this model really sustainable for our planet? I’ve made some researches to find out what kind of elements and critical key values make this business model successful. I want to give entrepreneurs trying to invest in this sector some advice to build an authentic and coherent green brand.
The essence of this concept stores is: customers bring their own boxes, bags, glass or plastic containers and weigh them, then they can fill them up with bulk items and packaging-free products stored in dispensers and they pay according to the quantity. 



Most of the shops sell choosing as a priority the “pre-cycling”, avoiding to produce any waste and packaging, and then reduce and reuse, over recycle. The absence of packaging helps people returning to buy food that they can see and smell, without the packaging filter, which has completely eliminated our relationship with food as a source of life. The function of packaging is also to give nutritional factors, but it still something that could be given to customers in other forms as, for example, digital informations with a QR code, or small cards near the dispensers. Plastic dispensers, reusable boxes or glass jars are practical and clean storage systems to distribute bulk products.

Here some example of dispenser suppliers:


The second principle of a zero waste shop should be to sell only local and authentic food and items, better still if organic. The aim should be to remain sustainable in every touch point of the chain of distribution, the organic and natural agriculture is the best way to guarantee the customer a quality and health product’s choice, which is good also for the environment. Even better if the food network remains local, in order to decrease the wares transportation.

Try to build a wide range of product people normally need in their everyday life, this would increase your sales. Selling the essential and more used foods combined with ecological and zero-waste household product as toiletries or accessories for buying zero-waste, is a good way to diversify your sales, attracting different types of customers, which they will be no longer forced to search different products in different shops. 



Reducing the overwhelming choice, selecting for the customers only good local products, could help people to reduce their struggle on being more sustainable in a busy life. For this reason, I suggest entrepreneurs, starting a new business, to spend time searching the right suppliers and building fair agreements. Establishing a direct relationship with producers and suppliers is a key success factor for zero waste shops to obtain good prices, choosing only trustful partnership and improving together, in the time, the ecological footprint of the supply chain.


To help clients to know what is behind a product, could be a good point to win trust and to be transparent. It could be made writing some information about the farmer or the manufacturer, printing the organic label near every product or, even better, organizing periodically events with farmers and producers as guests, speaking about their philosophy and how they produce them. This strategy helps to build a solid relationship with clients and to create a community of people participating and sympathizing with your brand through free time valuable experiences beyond the buying moment.


Many of the grocery shops opened in the last years are became famous thanks to the resonance of the world's largest crowdfunding platforms as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and others. This has helped new concept stores to grow fast and to become popular in a short time. Making a community part of a project, even before this has become reality, is something meaningful to empower people and to make them feel themselves useful. People in their own life, are searching many types of self-affirmation and, investing also a small part of their money in a good project, make them feel part of a community of thinking. Besides, most of the crowdfunding projects reward clients, investing in the idea, with samples, gifts and discounts to thanks them for their help and this increase the engagement level.




Speaking about the people’s engagement, there’s nothing so important as understanding the audience and the customer's profile to help you to decide where to settle down your business. Observation, interviews, spontaneous talks or the social media, can give you some inside, otherwise difficult to discover. Who lives in the neighborhood? Is there already some complementary shops attracting your same customers, could they be concurrence or partners? If you are interested in a neighbor, ask people informal questions, walk in different hours of the day to see the people habits during their daily life and take notes. Ask if there’s some local organization as for example associations of shops owners or purchase communities. The involvement of the local community in your research and design phase could be essential for the future success of your business.


To get the most out of your small business, choose the right structure. Selecting the right type of company or corporation for your new business helps maximize your chances of financial and operational success. For many small businesses as a grocery shop, the best initial choice is either a sole proprietorship or, if more than one owner is involved, a partnership. But there are many cases where project as these born from a community, so the cooperative form could be the best. Some of the famous case are for example the “Rainbow Grocery” in San Francisco, a worker-owned cooperative or the “Park Slope Food Coop” in Brooklyn, NY, a shop controlled equally and democratically by the members, which work in the store 2 hours and 45min every 4 week to have good food at low prices.



Being consistently coherent is the secret of a powerful brand identity. So if your shop sold unpackaged products, is as if you had a white canvas to write on it, you only must choose the right style and the philosophy to speak with your audience. To build consistency I suggest you create your own visual system toolkit that consists in combining the shop’s name, the logo, the taglines and the product lines with the right range of colors, typography, image and composition to express the value of your brand. Keywords as: green, natural, eco-sustainability, trust, simplicity, minimalism, lightness could be some of the inspirational values to integrate into your corporate identity. Today the biggest trends are handmade typography, wood, glass and metal containers and a good mix of modern and vintage style with natural materials.


The essential ingredients for an excellent customer experience are simplicity and clarity, fluidity, support and everyday life solutions. The client must find without difficulty what is searching for. A good communication and a clear explanation of the concept and the process, could help him to move intuitively and with fluidity in the purchase flux without to ask the shop assistants. 

A shop without packaging usually encouraged clients to bring their own containers from home, but it’s possible that some people don't know yet this principle, so giving the opportunity to purchase from the store a “starter kit” could be a helpful way for the beginners. Or, in case someone forgot their containers, you can prepare some cleaned reusable boxes to give away under a deposit payment.



What makes retail consumers prefer one venue over another? One of the most powerful things to consider when you have a shop is to design the shopping experience of your customer. This event begins even before you meet the client in your physical shop. People have access to many digital informations before they buy something or they choose a shop, first of all, they make an online research. Digital data influences 60 percent of consumers before they made an in-store purchase. Personal recommendations, including those from within social-media circles, play today a major role in purchase decisions. For this reason, it’s very important to look after your online presence with a well designed and clear website, where the customer experience should already begin (source Deloitte University Press).
Take care of your customer relationship before, during and after the purchase moment. Be sure that your staff build a good relationship too and care about client’s problem and needs. Another important touch point in the after service, is for example returns, they have become both a normal part of the shopping process and business as usual for retailers. Involve your customer before and after the purchase, a member’s card and a personalized newsletter can sure be a good way to make your clients feel special and to reward them with special offers or discounts


Ensure that the relation with your brand is, at every touchpoint, an opportunity to resonate in the hearts and minds of your consumers.

Are you in search of more inspiration or you want to find packaging free supermarkets and shops? I leave you some very useful links to search the best shop and bulk business models near you.





- Bepakt: packaging-free shop list

- Zero Waste Home: Bulk finder 



- Simply Bulk Market

- The Zero Market: Online shop

- New Leaf Community Market, CA 

- in.gredients, Austin, TX 



- Bulk Barn 

- The Soap Dispensary, Vancouver





- Original Unverpackt

- Naturlich Unverpackt

- Vom Fass 



- Mass-greisslerei, Wien 

- Holis Market, Linz



- Zero Waste Switzerland, good spots

Mass-greisslerei Lucern 

- Le Silos, La Chaux-de-Fonds

- La Portion Magique, Bienne 

- Magasine bio de Bois Genoud, Crissier/Lausanne

- Chez Mamie, Sion

- Bachsermärt, Zürich 

- Lyzamir, Geneva 



- Effecorta, Milano

- Negozio Leggero, Franchising

- Ari Ecoidee, Franchising 

- Verdessenza, Torino

- Pesonetto, Pesaro/Urbino



- Loes Market 



- La recharge 

- Daybyday-shop



Naturally good food



- Granel