Sale Signs - © ?

Sunday Musings: Do Retailers Abet Food Waste?

So, I was thinking about cleaning out the fridge just the other day, musing on why so much is wasted, even in a household like mine where awareness of food wastage and knowledge of all the ways it could be reduced are front and centre. And I realized: grocery stores are at least partly to blame…

Wasted Food - © foodnavigator.comMillions of tons of otherwise perfectly good food never make it
to the supermarket shelf because it’s ‘ugly’ or off-size…

More than half of the food that is grown and raised in the western world is wasted; and most of that waste takes place before the food even gets to the supermarket. But there’s still a significant amount that takes place at the supermarket and in our homes. Why?

I think I’ve figured it out, or at least discovered one large contributing factor to this troubling and – if you only look at the situation in the conventional way – apparently intractable way. The supermarkets have powerful built-in motivation to make us all buy more food than we need, so they can maximize the volume of product they move and maximize profits.

Fundamental waste through ‘culling’

Supermarket Produce Managers have their staffs ‘cull’ or sort out wilted or browned-off produce every night after the store closes so it won’t appear on the shelf the next day and devalue the remaining ‘good’ produce. They also refuse delivery of produce from wholesalers that doesn’t meet strict retail community standards for freshness, appearance and size. Thus do retailers an wholesalers conspire together – in self defense, they will argue – to divert millions and millions of tons of produce from the food chain to the trash trail every year.

Fortunately, some new conservation groups have popped up that are trying to solve the problem of ‘Ugly’ food wastage. The result? Some supermarkets have at least devoted an aisle to ‘Ugly Food (sold at a discount) as a token move to show they disapprove of food waste. But that’s a very small effort against a huge problem.

Profits forecast: Light to variable

If you are a supermarket manager, or a supermarket chain executive, you know how slim your profit margins can be – especially on products that people demand and need to carry on their lives which aren’t particularly profitable, but which you have to carry to keep your notoriously fickle customers happy – and buying their more-profitable grocery items from you, too.

What are the variables you have to juggle very day to keep your business successful? Among the most important ones are: maximizing sales volume, provision of variety that consumers demand, keeping inventories low (which really means keeping cash flowing in), maintaining customer loyalty, and keeping purchase cost of goods as low as possible.

That last factor – which translates to squeezing the best possible wholesale prices out of suppliers and manufacturers – is a really hot topic and one that, to be fair, needs a whole post of its own. And it doesn’t really bear directly on the issue of food waste. But the others do, and they’re intricately intertwined in ways most of don’t even realize until someone points the connections out.

Inventory control

Nevertheless, the pressures of supply and demand act on the grocery business in exactly the same way as they do on other product resale businesses. But there’s more than that going on with groceries – especially what we traditionally call perishables: meat, dairy and produce. Any product that can ‘expire’ or otherwise has a shelf life assigned to it, presents a potential for waste.

It’s easy to see how that works with meat, dairy and produce. At the extremes, you can see, and in some cases even smell, when a product has gone bad – label dates notwithstanding. Then there’s the age-old debate about when a product should still be offered for sale when it’s simply past its ‘Best Before’ (peak of freshness) date, but not beyond the its ‘Use By’ or ‘Expiry’ date.  Customers often don’t know the difference and will toss out perfectly good food at its ‘Best Before’ date, rather than educate themselves about what the labels really mean. As my dear old stepdad used to say, in his otherwise charming old-fashioned way: ‘Why take chances?”

There are laws that govern how foods approaching expiry are allowed to be push-marketed (i.e.- deep-discounted, or made the subject of other kinds of hard-to-resist specials). There comes a point when supermarket operators either toss out the offending products and take a loss, or cut their losses using the aforementioned discounting tactics to at least get something for the goods. ‘Something’ being better than ‘nothing’. But getting customers to buy them is often an insurmountable challenge. So, out go the products, anyway.

The conundrum of variety

If a supermarket manager tried to stock all the possible brands and ‘flavours’ of a given product all the time. the business would have have ‘Store Closing – Final Clearance’ signs in the windows before the first month was out. They understandably press manufacturers and wholesalers for the best possible prices they can get on products, and – conversely – demand that the pre-retail suppliers jump through hoops just to get their products on the store shelves.

Generally, retailers try to restrict their stocking plans to either traditional best-sellers – i.e.- ‘guaranteed-seller’ products – or the latest ‘new and improved’ versions of those products to maximize the chance of sales.

Sometimes, suppliers must spend lavishly on national ad campaigns to support the eventual retail sales of their products before retailers will stock them. Sometimes, they must extend deep discounts (albeit it, in exchange for volume purchases by grocery chains). And sometimes, its a case of what some have labeled ‘extortion’ by grocery retailers who demand money to give products valuable shelf space, or give products preferred placement in the store or on the shelves – all of which can influence the sales of products significantly, raising their brand profiles above the competition. In lock-step with the foregoing, retailers will also accept ‘special considerations’ to remove competitive products or their own house-label products from their shelves temporarily, to ensure that consumers buy ‘featured’ brands or specific products.

True variety is a mortal enemy of supermarket operators. Many factors and devices conspire together to keep actual on-shelf variety to a minimum.

‘Specials’ and volume sales ‘devices’

Retails have long ago written the definitive book on how to get their customers to buy as much as they (the retailers) can convince them to buy. And that’s often much more of a given product than the average family needs. Originally based on prices-vs.-volumes typically suitable for families of four, some of those ploys no longer serve the once-guiding principles of minimizing waste or keeping prices as low as possible for consumers.

Two-for-one specials are really just giving you the ‘chance’ to buy a particular product for half-off the usual price, per unit. Deals that evolve from that rely on the same deceptive principle. But such specials look really good on the in-store signs, and they help retailers clear stock that might not sell before its ‘Expiry Date’. Just remember: Nothing is really ‘free’!

How many times have you found you had to buy a ‘package’ of similar items when you just wanted one or two of them? Supermarket peo0ple don’t want to incur the inconvenience and potential spoilage losses of selling most goods by onesies or twosies. Hence, you pretty much have to buy bread rolls, cookies, baked goods and other products in packages of four or six – or more – when you know you won’t need that many. The most insidious ‘conspiracies’ revolving on packaging deceptions involve stuff like Hot Dogs. They sell Hot Dogs ad other Sausages in packages of 6, but the Buns are only sold in 8s. It’s like trying to even-up the legs on a chair: you can close to making them come out even, but you’ll never actually get there!

And hen you have to buy 4 Pork Chops or deluxe Hamburger Patties when you only need three (for instance), you’re just asking for waste to claim the leftover piece eventually.

What can we do?

That’s a subject for a whole separate post. Which we’ll get to a few days from now. Promise. For now, think about your usual visit to the grocery store and see how many instances of waste-inducing marketing practices you can identify!

~ Maggie J.