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Food Waste Is The New Sales Driver: 4 Ways Kroger, Walmart Are Changing Shopper Thinking

There’s a new food pyramid on the minds of supermarket operators these days: It’s about the size of a great Egyptian pyramid, and there are six of them.

That’s about the amount of food, 72 billion pounds, that ends up in landfills and incinerators each year, and more food sellers are trying to find ways to stop it. It’s a matter of good business as much as good citizenry: nearly 40% of the food wasted in the U.S. is thrown out by consumers, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and when it goes to waste so does the water, soil and fertilizer — not to speak of labor — that went into producing it.

There’s a legitimate profit potential for reducing food waste. ReFED, a collaboration of 50 retailers, government leaders and organizations, estimates the cost of food waste is more than double its original profit potential, calculating it as an $18.2 billion opportunity for grocers. Further, 92% of surveyed shoppers feel supermarkets could do more to eliminate waste.

So more supermarkets are doing that — seeking ways to reduce food loss resulting from expiration date confusion, overbuying and “ugly” produce that never makes it to the store. For some, doing so presents an opportunity to address the crisis of poverty-related hunger. Some are focused on reducing the costs and pollution resulting from food disposal, as well as unnecessary production.

For all, it’s an effort to get closer to shoppers by sharing facts about a critical issue and inviting them to become important contributors to positive change. Using simple approaches, major food retailers are pointing out the relevance of food waste at local levels, in terms of cost and sustainability, and turning shoppers’ concerns over food expiration into hope for a more sustainable future.

Basically, food sellers are introducing responsibility as an element of the customer experience — and boosting their brand images as well.

Swedes Apply the Smell Test, Kroger Aims for Zero

If the amount of unnecessarily disposed food adds up to six great pyramids, you can say individual supermarkets each represent one block in that range of waste. As each store addresses food excess and loss, those pyramids shrink.

Shoppers can contribute by seeking out merchants actively working to reduce their own lost-food footprint. Here are four examples.

Move the food around. A lot of food waste occurs, frustratingly, far from areas where people are hungry. So Kroger Co. is using its size, influence and distribution might to divert otherwise wasted food to communities in need. Its Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative, launched in September 2018, aims to eliminate food waste by 2025 while also reducing hunger. The 2,800-store chain established a $10 million innovation fund to assist in part by accelerating food donations and advocating for public policy solutions. Kroger is partnering with the food bank network Feeding America and the World Wildlife Fund, among other groups, to identify opportunities. The move follows Kroger’s commitment, in 2016, to meet or beat the EPA’s “zero waste” threshold of 90% diversion from landfills by 2020.

Milking opportunity. Often there’s no good reason to spill milk, yet a series of numbers convinces many people to so regularly. So the European grocery chain Coop Sweden, aware people often toss food based on the expiration dates alone, launched a campaign that urges shoppers to instead trust their sense of smell. Coop created a fragrance based on the odor of old milk and is inviting its customers to order samples of the fragrance online (coop.se). The campaign, called “Old Milk,” aims to familiarize consumers with the real smell of spoiled milk so they resist the urge to pour it down the drain on expiration day. Its slogan: “A fragrance for the planet.”

Cracking the use code. Also tackling the issue of food-expiration confusion, Walmart is reducing waste by clarifying food expiration labels. In 2016 it began requiring all of its food suppliers to adopt standardized expiration date labels that divide food in two categories: “Best if Used By” for nonperishable products, and “Use By” for food that can spoil. In the store, Walmart found a way to replace individual cracked eggs in cartons so it can still sell the pack, preventing millions of eggs from being thrown out every year. Many other merchants will toss the entire carton of eggs.

Imperfect solutions. In a bid to reduce food waste at the source, the online subscription service Imperfect Produce delivers customized orders of “ugly” or imperfect produce directly from the farm to the shopper’s door. Its seasonal menu changes weekly and is marketed to be priced at 30% to 50% less than grocery store prices. Shoppers can pick organic or conventional produce, all vegetables, all fruit or a mix of both. Distribution is still limited to 10 metro areas, including Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle, Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and San Antonio, Texas.

None of these efforts will work without acceptance, meaning some shoppers will have to change fundamental beliefs about food expiration and how their food should look. This will require awareness. Ending food waste is a monumental undertaking, but so was building the great pyramids. Food sellers can make a difference, but they’ll need to engage their shoppers.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.

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