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How in-store technology is supporting retail’s sustainability agenda

Boots, Costa Coffee and the major grocers’ in-store technology focus is switching towards systems supporting sustainability goals

The United Nations’ (UN’s) climate change summit kicks off in Glasgow on 31 October, as an environmental awakening takes place across UK retail.

Talk is rife within retail circles of encouraging reuse, recycle and repair – the “circular economy”, to give it a catch-all moniker – and that is manifesting itself in a proliferation of new customer-facing initiatives.

They are wrapped up in “sustainability” messaging, and in many cases, technology is being deployed to help bring the schemes to life.

Pre-pandemic, in-store retail technology innovation centred on frictionless transactions, connecting digital and physical assets, big screens and augmented reality experiences. It still has that focus, but tech to support the green agenda is increasingly prevalent.

“It’s not a fad that will be here today but gone tomorrow,” says Miya Knights, a retail analyst. “It’s certainly the new shiny thing, but it’s also a permanent fixture.”

Knights says that retailers often fill the gap local municipal services do not provide, such as by launching collection schemes for hard-to-recycle plastics.

Some of the tech used to facilitate the initiatives is viewed as cutting edge and facilitating long-term changes in consumer and retailer behaviour.

Scan to recycle

Boots is helping lead the charge, announcing in September that 700 of its stores will provide a Scan2Recycle service enabling shoppers to take back used beauty product packaging in return for loyalty Advantage points.

Consumers register on the Scan2Recycle website, scan their empties, and when they have five items in their virtual basket they use a QR code at an in-store collection point to deposit items. Loyalty points worth £2.50 are issued for every five items deposited.

The scheme is run by Metrisk, which built the technology platform behind the service. It has partnered with recycling company, MyGroup, which collects the packaging, before processing it at its facility in Hull and constructing new products from the material.

Alistair Morelli, Metrisk co-founder, says the entire premise is based on “bringing the process of recycling into the 21st century”. The platform – which Metrisk spent two and half years developing – aims to increase consumer engagement with recycling.

With more than half a million empties collected in the trial period, despite the pandemic and multiple lockdowns during that time, the trial is meeting those goals.

“We hypothesised that – because of the reward – it appeals to consumers who wouldn’t traditionally recycle,” says Morelli, suggesting the lure of loyalty points makes it more productive than other Metrisk-run retail collection schemes without such rewards.

Data is at the heart of the scheme too, with the retailer able to find out exactly which products and brands are recycled most regularly, as well as popular locations. Boots reports toothpaste, mascara and handwash as the top three products recycled, with Colgate, No7 and Boots the most popular brands entering the system.

Customers can also track the impact they have on the environment with all their returns listed in their personal account, which is accessible online.

When announcing the trial was to extend nationwide, Lucy Reynolds, Boots’ director of communications and corporate social responsibility (CSR), highlighted the change in behaviour the scheme is enabling, saying: “Customers can feel even better about treating themselves with their Boots Advantage Card points knowing that their products can be recycled.”

Talking user experience of the process, Morelli adds: “We knew consumers would always jump through a few hurdles if there’s a reward at the end of it.”

We hypothesised that – because of the reward – [Scan2Recycle] appeals to consumers who wouldn’t traditionally recycle
Alistair Morelli, Metrisk

The platform uses image recognition tech, meaning automatic acknowledgement of No 7 products when scanned by customers, which creates a speedier process for registering packaging from this brand.

“We could teach our system to learn any brand’s portfolio of products,” says Morelli, who acknowledges other retailers are showing an interest in the technology.

Away from beauty, the concept of scan and recycle is also enabling grocers Co-op and Morrisons to collect used electricals to help tackle e-waste in the UK.

In partnership with London-based start-up Spring, the retailers have placed pods in some stores to collect items such as pre-loved mobile phones, smart watches and tablet devices. Full roll-out with Morrisons will take place in 2022.

To use the service, consumers register an account on Spring’s website, add their old electronics and gather a value, and choose a drop-off point at which to deposit the items. Activated with a unique QR code assigned to customers, the service then pays out within two to five days – straight to a bank account or charity of the individual’s choice.

Mark Matthews, Co-op’s director of innovation and format, says the collaboration will “make it easy for consumers to recycle or reuse their electronic devices locally and prevent unnecessary waste”. He argues that providing opportunities for consumers to make small changes “can add up to making a big difference for our environment”.

There are several aspects to the service. Spring founders, Tom Williams and James Seear, want to educate consumers about the materials behind their tech devices. A full tech report is provided for each item put up for recycling, so consumers get a transparent view of the value and make-up of their tech.

“It’s crazy to me that you can go to the local shop and buy a sandwich with ingredients, but when you go to Apple or Samsung they will not supply you with that information about electrical products,” says Seear. “We want to show people and educate people.”

The co-founders promise to recirculate all collected materials. That might be as the tech it formerly was following a repair, or as separated parts, or as melted down parts used in new products.

Ultimately, the ambition is to launch a marketplace reselling the collected electricals, with consumers able to direct recycling credit towards second-hand purchases. This would complete what Williams and Seear call “the Spring Cycle”.

Spring currently works with several B2B and B2C marketplace partners to get products and parts back into circulation, but its own sales channels are on the horizon.

“We feel there isn’t a great service, retail outlet or marketplace offering reused or reconditioned tech – there’s a gap there,” Williams adds.

QR codes and blockchain technology

Recently floated online re-commerce business musicMagpie is also playing a role in using retail stores to support more electricals recycling.

Its phone recycling facilities will be in 295 Asda stores by next year, where consumers can visit to gain a mobile phone recycling quote, dispose of their item and secure the relevant fee for the product immediately.

A trial in around 40 stores was deemed successful, prompting wider roll-out. During the pilot, musicMagpie’s kiosks processed around 3,000 smartphones in 10 months with £800,000 ending up in consumers’ pockets as a result.

Asda research shows that 70% of the customers who came into a store to use a kiosk had not shopped at Asda before, while 24% of kiosk customers went on to make a purchase in store, representing a clear business case for deploying in-store recycling.

Elsewhere, Tesco customers in the east of England are being encouraged to download the Loop app, which gives them access to a TerraCycle-operated reusable grocery packaging scheme. Once again, a QR code is central to activating the scheme in participating stores – and it’s a programme expected to expand in the year ahead.

Meanwhile, Costa Coffee is now running a six-month reusable cup scheme pilot in Glasgow, called Burt – which stands for borrow, use, reuse, take-back. Visitors gain access to the scheme and a metal drinks container with a £5 deposit in store.

Customers scan the QR code on the base of the cup to link it to their personal account, which is then tracked on Valari blockchain tech devised by digital agency Austella. When the cup is later deposited in store, it becomes delinked from the individual’s account and machine-washed by Costa, ready for the next Burt customer.

It is effectively a one-city-sized experiment to see how consumers react to such a scheme – aimed at changing behaviour and at cutting down single-use packaging.

The long-term ambition of Austella boss Mark Cundle is for more hospitality companies to join the platform, providing a traceable packaging network of NFC-tagged cups, food trays and smart-deposit bins that enable society to reuse rather than throwaway.

“Where we want to get to, for example, is you grab your coffee at Reading station in the morning, you get to London Waterloo and you drop off the packaging at a Burt drop-off,” he says. “There’s no inconvenience for the user – it’s the same process as the journey of a paper cup, but we’re not putting it in landfill.”

Iterative innovation

As Cundle alludes to, strength comes in numbers – and true positive environmental impact is unlikely to come from individual schemes, but from systemic change and continued co-operation among the business community.

Iain Ferguson, an independent environmental consultant, who recently retired from The Co-op Group after 32 years, the past 12 years of which were spent as environmental manager, says his previous employer recognises the need for collaboration.

Individuals won’t solve environmental problems – it needs to be all of us
Iain Ferguson, independent environmental consultant

“The way forward for retail’s green agenda is collaborative working where it is necessary but competitiveness on the actual product being sold,” he says.

“At the Co-op we wanted to be first, but as soon as we were first we’d share. Every chance we had, we shared what we knew or who to talk to – such as when we introduced recycled trays for cooked meats. Individuals won’t solve environmental problems – it needs to be all of us.”

Ferguson cites digital deposit return schemes, one of which is being trialled in Wales, as a future tech-enabled retail initiative with the potential to make a big impact. He also suggests mobile-operated dispensing units could be the next iteration for the refillable ranges starting to appear in supermarkets across the UK.

Encouragingly, Ferguson talks of “a huge appetite for change” within the industry when it comes to green matters, including among his erstwhile peers.

“There’s always a concern about the cost of change – but retail is facing new responsibilities that will make them think they need to change before extra costs come in,” he says, referring to so-called carbon taxes mooted for the years ahead. “Beyond that, there’s definitely appetite for change – retailers are always looking for what the next big thing is.”

As Knights suggests, that next big thing in retail technology circles comprises in-store systems to support the green agenda. It’s not only what the customer wants or what is planet positive, as Knights points out, “it’s increasingly good for business too”.

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