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1 Aug 2019

Waitrose Unpacked - is packaging-free food budget-friendly?

We've taken a look at Waitrose's packaging-free trial and done the maths to work out if buying loose saves you money as well as reducing plastic.

Waitrose has extended its packaging-free trial to stores in Abingdon, Cheltenham and Wallingford. The trial allows customers to bring in their own, refillable containers for fruit and veg, pasta, cereals, coffee, and even wine. But is it better for the environment and also cheaper? Our analysis suggests it could tick both boxes.

The Waitrose Unpacked trial started on Monday 3 June, in Oxford and has been extended past the original 11 weeks. The other stores will have packaging-free areas known as refill stations.

This comes after the success of the Oxford store which the supermarket says gives it 'confidence that the concept could be a success elsewhere'. The Cheltenham Waitrose Unpacked store is due to open in September with Abingdon and Wallingford, both Oxfordshire, due to change in November.

It's hoped that the idea has the potential to save thousands of tonnes of unnecessary plastic and packaging.

But is it worth the hassle of having to bring your own containers, and does this way of shopping at Waitrose cost more?

To find out, we took a trip in June 2019 to the store running the trial - Botley Road, Oxford - to crunch the numbers. We checked a number of items, and found that it's at least as cheap to buy many of them 'loose'.

How does Waitrose measure up to rival supermarkets overall? Find out in our reviews of the best and worst supermarkets.

Is Waitrose's packaging-free food cheaper?

Our snapshot research looked at the prices of 45 of the 120 items included in the trial and compared the price per 100g/ml with packaged items on Waitrose.com, choosing the closest equivalent we could find.

Three quarters of the products we checked cost the same amount or less at Waitrose Unpacked.

We chose products that represented a good mix of those included in the trial - for example our 'basket' contained pasta, loose fruit, wine, coffee, dried fruit and laundry detergent.

Waitrose Unpacked vs packaged items: prices compared

The table below shows some of the price differences we found between items featured in the trial and their Waitrose.com equivalents.

Waitrose Unpacked itemWaitrose Unpacked price per 100g/mlWaitrose.com equivalent itemWaitrose.com price per 100g/mlPrice difference per 100g/ml
Loose strawberries 370g (in cardboard box)£0.42Waitrose 1 Specialty strawberries 365g£0.6018p cheaper loose
Essential seedless green grapes 675g (in paper bag)£0.40Essential seedless green grapes 500g£0.40same price
Frozen mixed fruit 434g, mango (in own container)£0.50Essential mango chunks 450g (frozen)£0.482p cheaper packaged
Waitrose Seed, Berry & Goji Mix 244g (in own container)£1.30Waitrose Seed, Berry & Goji Mix 180g£1.5222p cheaper loose
Essential Fusilli 316g (in own container)£0.10Essential fusilli 1kg£0.133p cheaper loose
Dark and Delicious blend coffee beans 136g (in own container)£2.20Waitrose Intense Dark and Distinctive Italian-style coffee beans 227g£1.15£1.05 cheaper packaged
Ecover Non-Bio Concentrated Laundry Detergent 1.5 litre (in reusable Ecover bottle)£0.53*Ecover Non-Bio Concentrated Laundry Detergent 1.5litre£0.608p cheaper refillable

*Price for refill only. The refillable bottle costs £1 extra when buying the bottle. Customers can only use bottles bought from the refill stations.

While the packaged versions of some items we looked at, such as the coffee beans, were cheaper weight-for-weight, we found more examples where it was cheaper to forego the packaging.

When we contacted Waitrose to ask it why its loose coffee was so much more expensive, it told us that it is a premium blend which can't be directly compared with anything it currently offers 'on shelf'.

However, it's worth bearing in mind that even if prices of loose products are identical, or a little more expensive, on a like-for-like basis, you may still be able to save money with loose products. This is because you can usually buy exactly the quantity you need, rather than being forced to overbuy because of packaging size. This has the extra benefit of avoiding potential food waste at home.

If you're a price-conscious shopper and don't live within easy reach of the Waitrose trial store, find out which supermarket is the cheapest this month based according to our shopping basket comparison.

Best Waitrose Unpacked deals

  • Soft fruit

Unexpectedly, some soft fruits, such as strawberries and raspberries, were cheaper to buy loose, and grapes, cherry plum tomatoes and mangetout were the same price as packaged versions.

Supermarkets often say that plastic is needed to protect and preserve these items more than others, and to avoid food waste, so we were pleasantly surprised to find the unpackaged versions of these items were reasonably priced.

  • Dried fruit, grains and cereals

Dried fruit, meanwhile, was noticeably cheaper to buy from Waitrose's refill stations, and some grains and cereals such as cornflakes and rice also worked out a few pence cheaper per 100g.

This could be because these products are less prone to damage, so using packaging for these items actually costs the retailer more to produce than they risk losing in food waste.

  • Wine

We also thought that the trial version of Waitrose's 'When in Rome' Nero d'Avola Sicilia red wine, seemed a particularly good deal - and represented the biggest saving we found when buying 'loose'. A refill of a reusable Waitrose bottle cost just £6.99 per 750ml from the Oxford store.

Volume-for-volume, based on the price per 100ml, this works out £1.11 cheaper than buying the boxed equivalent (the volume of a full box is 2.25l). The cheapest bottle of Nero d'Avola wine of any brand we could find on Waitrose.com is currently on offer at £7.49, but is usually priced at £9.99.

  • 'Essential Waitrose Unpacked refillables such as pasta, cereals and dried fruit are 15% cheaper than their packaged equivalents to encourage more customers to buy them' - Waitrose spokesperson.

A 'traditional greengrocer' look and feel

We didn't give Waitrose any warning of our visit, as we wanted to find out what the experience was like from the perspective of a typical customer.

  • Fruit and veg

The fruit and vegetable aisles have the look and feel of a traditional greengrocer, packed full of loose produce from tomatoes to pineapples.

Berries and other small, delicate fruit and veg do have some minimal packaging - such as cardboard boxes - while lettuces and green vegetables are shelved completely loose.

Scales throughout the area mean that weighing items shouldn't be too much of an hassle.

There's also a counter manned by chefs who will prepare vegetables for you for free. We asked them to spiralise a courgette, which took just seconds. You can either wait at the counter while they prepare your veg, or carry on with the rest of your shop and come back to collect them.

  • Dried goods

The dried goods refill stations, meanwhile, have a selection of grains, pastas and dried fruit in large dispensers, allowing shoppers to either fill their own containers or use paper bags. If you are using a container you need to weigh it and attach a barcode label before you fill it up.

Once full, you weigh the container again, tell the machine that you are using your own container and scan the barcode so it can subtract that weight. Then it prints the label with your final price.

We found this process a little tricky initially, but there was a member of staff on hand to help, and we soon got the hang of it. A word of warning for anyone tempted to visit the Oxford store to try it for themselves it's quite easy to overfill your container, and we weren't sure what to do if you then couldn't fit your lid on, but any spills were quickly cleaned up.

  • Beer and wine

The beer and wine station is run by a Waitrose staff member who lets customers try samples of the wines and beers. They explained to us that you need to buy the initial bottle (750ml for wine or 1.89L for beer) - unfortunately you can't just bring your own.

Including the initial bottle prices, wine costs £7.99 and beer costs £14, but this goes down to £6.99 and £10 respectively for subsequent refills.

  • Detergents

At present, the only detergent brand on trial is from Ecover - it has a dedicated refill station in the detergent aisle, which dispenses washing up liquid and laundry detergent. Shoppers can bring their own Ecover bottles (provided they are the right size) or pay a extra £1 for a reusable bottle.

We found it fiddly to push the button and hold the bottle at the same time and had to ask a helpful member of staff to hold the bottle.

Is Ecover the best detergent you can buy? Find out in our reviews of the best and worst washing detergents.

How other supermarkets are cutting down on plastic

Waitrose isn't the only supermarket trying to cut down on its plastic use. On Thursday 6 June Sainsbury's announced it will be cutting 1,284 tonnes of plastic this year, including the plastic bags currently used for loose fruit, vegetables and bakery items. It will also remove plastic lids and trays from fresh fruit and vegetables.

Morrisons has removed plastic packaging from some of its fresh fruit and vegetables in-store, and other stores including Aldi, Asda, Iceland and Lidl have removed 5p plastic bags from their stores.

Meanwhile Tesco, Morrisons and Co-op have been trialling reverse vending machines, which let you return plastic bottles and give you a few pence back per bottle.

Most of the supermarkets are also signed up to the Plastics Pact. This means they are aiming, by 2025 to have 100% of their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable, 70% effectively recycled or composted, and 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging.

Did Waitrose Unpacked work in Oxford?

With more stores due to implement the concept it seems like it did.

Throughout our visit in June, Waitrose staff told us that they were keen to receive feedback on the trial so the store can make improvements.

The Oxford store received more than 7,000 pieces of customer feedback. It found that the refill stations were popular but that customers preferred to bring their own containers.

'The Veg Kitchen' - where staff prepared fresh vegetables for customers - was not as popular as some of the other concepts. This means it and the 'borrow-a-box' scheme will not be at the new locations.

'We are keen to take the Unpacked concept forward and these additional tests will help us achieve this' said Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for Waitrose & Partners, Tor Harris. 'We will continue to learn and develop ideas which have the potential to be rolled out more widely.'

But is all of this just a publicity stunt? We hope not. If this continues to be rolled out into other stores and supermarket chains it might have a beneficial effect as regards plastic use. Watch this space.

In the meantime, if you want to find out more about how to recycle effectively and reduce your waste, visit our recycling guides.