Since its opening at the end of last year, we’d been desperate to visit Asda’s Middleton store, the location that serves as the supermarket brand’s testbed for all things sustainability. This week, our innovation strategist Charlie Lloyd travelled north to take a look.
Approaching the Asda in Middleton, an area a few miles south of Leeds city centre, you would be forgiven for assuming you were visiting just one of the supermarket brand’s many larger stores across the country. A welcome message displayed above the store’s front entrance informs you that this is, however, a very special Asda.
It’s the company’s sustainability trial store, where it carries out all manner of eco-friendly experiments around the principles of recycling, reusing and refilling.
Principle 1: Recycle
The first major difference you see at this store is just to the right of the main entrance, where a cavernous recycling centre enables consumers to recycle a phenomenally comprehensive array of different types of product and packaging, many of which are not easily recycled anywhere else.
Consumers can recycle plastic film and carrier bags, fruit and vegetable punnets, crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, small plastic toys, clothing hangers, toothpaste tubes, tooth brushes, cosmetics and skin care containers, water filters, print cartridges, batteries and small electrical items, each of which has its own depository inside the recycling area.
The room also has a drinks container recycling point, into which shoppers can bring their used cans, plastic and glass bottles. The machine includes a constantly updating counter on the side showing how many items it has recycled, a nice feature which reminds everyone of the cumulative power of our individual actions.
Inside the store itself, a variety of products can be found dotted across the aisles wrapped in recyclable packaging that I haven’t seen in other Asda stores before, from paper-wrapped potted herbs to duvets, while signage above the store’s chilled ready meal section informs customers that all of the options are ‘ready to recycle’.
Principle 2: Reuse
In the clothing section of the store, usually monopolised by Asda’s own clothing label George, a new brand is making an impact. PVW (Preloved Vintage Wholesale) has partnered with Asda to stock its range of second-hand ‘premium vintage & retro clothing at affordable prices’ inside the store. Initially trialled exclusively in this Middleton test store, Asda announced last month that the trial has been successful and the partnership is being extended to a further 50 stores across the country. That’s really great to see, and it shows that the trial store is fulfilling its purpose of identifying popular schemes for a wider rollout.
Elsewhere on this side of the store where the clothing and home ranges are displayed, I spotted some lovely examples of engaging signage educating shoppers about some of the work Asda is doing. A 3D glass display showing cotton growing on the stems of a cotton plant is a particularly eye-catching feature that draws attention to Asda’s membership to the Better Cotton Initiative, through which it sources responsible cotton for its clothing and home wares. Another 3D display filled with woodchip informs the customer of Asda’s various pledges on sustainable sourcing, including wood, paper and pulp by 2020 and cotton by 2025.
Principle 3: Refill
The part of the store that I was most excited about seeing was the refill aisle, a bank of products from various categories that can be refilled using the customers’ own reusable containers, which we first covered at GDR when the plans were announced at the beginning of last year.
Several big-name brands have their own refill stations here. A Vimto refill area stocks branded reusable bottles alongside a Vimto tap; the bottles can be bought and filled up for £2, then refilled thereafter for 75p each time. Lots of different foodstuffs, from Asda’s own range pasta and rices to Kellogg’s cereal, Taylor’s of Harrogate coffees and PG Tips tea can all be filled up into the customers’ own containers and sold by weight by placing the container onto the area’s scales. Underneath these products, a variety of plastic tubs of various sizes are handily available to customers who need to buy them.
Unilever have a strong presence in the refill aisle too, with large digital stations for its home laundry brand Persil, skincare brand Simple and shampoo brand Alberto Balsam all allowing customers to buy reusable bottles and fill them up with their respective products. Customers can also find home cleaning brands Ocean Saver and Cif (another of Unilever’s brands) in the refill aisle, where they can pick up both brands’ refill cartridges and bottles.
It was amazing to see such a comprehensive bank of refill stations from such major brands in the flesh, and at a leading supermarket. One thing I did notice though was that while I was exploring the aisle, a couple of other shoppers were doing the same, but no one was actually using it (I say this with the important caveat that I was there at a very much off-peak time of day in the middle of the week, and the store itself wasn’t busy at the time).
But even if consumers genuinely are still hesitant to use these machines, I don’t think that’s a problem for Asda at this stage. We know from other, shorter trials at other retailers that customers don’t just jump on refill stations as soon as they launch – after all, they do constitute quite a substantially different approach to shopping that is still alien to most consumers. But that’s the purpose of this store. It’s about introducing these things slowly and giving them the time needed for consumers to become familiar with them.
Overall, I was highly impressed with the various elements on trial at this store and I’m looking forward to finding out what else follows in the footsteps of PVW and gets rolled out into other stores, and about what else gets its first chance in front of customers here in Leeds.