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The Name: Unpackaged

The Place: The Arthaus Building, Hackney, London E8

The Story: It all started on a market stall on Broadway Market  in 2006 where founder Catherine Conway had the idea of eliminating  packaging on food stuffs and encouraging her customers to bring their own containers. But market stalls only really deal in one thing and people started asking her to stock other stuff. So one thing led to another and a bit of social enterprise funding later and voila – a small but very stylish shop of 450 sq ft appeared in 2007 and was phenomenally successful. As Conway says ‘we were the solution that people were looking for’.  But that Amwell Street site has now closed to escape a restrictive lease.

Catherine Conway

Oh. What next then? A much larger unit of 1,700 sq ft has just opened (December 5) together with the café/bar that Conway always envisaged as being part of the deal. As she puts it people have gone to all this trouble to come laden down with containers, the nice thing to do is to give them somewhere good to relax and eat before the trip home. Unpackaged is moving up in the world.

So now I’m trying to think of something that you can’t refill just to spoil the party: I’ll help you out. Conway thinks that tinned tomatoes really do need a tin to keep them in. But there isn’t much else. Obviously all dry goods are fine and Unpackaged is experimenting with making their own soya milk and rice milk so you can avoid evil Tetrapak. Glass bottles and milk are another new addition. Her chef in the new premises, Kate de Syllas – another market staller – makes her own baked bean, which will be on sale in a bulk container. So there. It’s actually more about customer perception.

Meaning?Well, Unpackaged has come to the conclusion that it is easier for staff to dispense a lot of items. Yogurt for example, they tried buckets and pumps and all sorts but the customer perceived it as unhygienic so now staff will do it for you. In the bar area, although it will not be hidden from the customer that the wine is held in bulk containers, your actual glass of house red (certified anti-mafia no less) will be filled from a glass bottle. It’s a bridge too far to fill the glass from the big vat but as de Syllas points out Unpackaged always has to fight the idea that bulk means poor quality. Like I say, it’s all about perception.


Gravity drop bins in evidence at Unpackaged
And how are Unpackaged perceived by other retailers and suppliers? With a great deal of interest. There are a lot of ‘innovation visits’ going on. Plenty of work done with suppliers to encourage them to provide a packaging free solution and nice green points for companies like Sodastream who have been very helpful in the new bar. Obviously a lot of their suppliers are small independents like Faith In Nature where packaging is easy to control but the Holy Grail is getting the big boys on board. Conway is a real evangelist for this concept and does consultancy for interested parties however un-green they are – the more the merrier for her.

And are the customers of the lentil-eating sandal-wearing variety? Pah. You’re so yesterday. In her original business plan Conway defined three categories 1) the young and ethical 20-somethings 2) the ‘I’m protecting my children’ organic mum and 3) the older Radio 4 generation for whom it is a memory thing. However in reality anyone and everyone are walking through the door. Plenty of people buy portion-by-portion to save money. In geographical terms 40% of them lived within a half mile of the Amwell Street site, 20% were in the north of London and Islington, 20% in Hackney and the east and the last 20% all over the rest of London.

And what does that tell me? It tells you that in time Conway would like to open four outlets, north, south, east, and west London. But that’s mid-term. Long-term there could be concessions in other shops and community start-ups running their own Unpackaged formats. But for now she’s going to concentrate on the new Arthaus customers. She’d like refill rates to be 80% and expects turnover could quadruple from the first shop. There are 70-odd flats above the shop and she wants them to use Unpackaged. Conway likes to get up close and personal with her punters and says she can envisage a time when she has people’s keys and leaves their milk in her refillable glass bottles in their fridge for them.

Crikey. That is close. How often do they come? The top-up shoppers twice a week, the ones who spend £10-£20 come once a week and the monthly ones spend around £40 a time. Bear in mind they are carrying all this back with them and a lot don’t come in cars.

They’ll need that coffee or beer then: Surely will. The shop will be open 8-8, with the café running 8-5 before seamlessly (with a little lighting help) turning into a bar till 11pm. There will be a transition period whilst the local populace gets used to the ‘bring your own cup’ routine which de Syllas is calling the 1,000 cup countdown – a QR code on the cups explaining that if they bring their own cup and keep using it they will get a free drink.  They will also be selling reusable food containers at cost price so people get the idea to keep bringing it back. In the bar tiny tonic bottles are banned so work is being done on developing an alternative. Limoncello and amoretto will be produced on site and a beer eco-keg will be doing a tour of all the local microbreweries.

Phew. Anything else? Packaging which has been produced at great expense out of the earth’s finite resources is held in the hands about 20 seconds before being binned and sent back into the ground as landfill.

Nuff said.

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