Educating and Incentivizing Customers to Minimize Food Waste

This is a guest post in collaboration with RTS. See the bottom of this post for an author’s bio.

Food waste is a worldwide problem. Throughout the food production process, there is some amount of lost or wasted food. To avoid lowering prices, farmers may decide to discard some produce or not harvest it at all. During the packing process, food distributors will discard perfectly nutritious fruits and vegetables that are not visually attractive. Spoilage during transportation is another source of lost food. All of these examples lead to the more than 20 billion pounds of food lost before it even reaches the supermarket.

Billions of pounds of food are wasted every year at grocery distributors. Supermarkets and convenience stores must estimate consumer demand for products. If the demand for an item falls, it can lead to nearly-expired food sitting on shelves. At that point, the store can either reduce the price or discard the item.

Consumers also waste food that they have purchased. In some cases, an impulsive selection leads to unopened food ended up in the garbage. Overestimating the amount of food for a recipe also leads to waste. It is estimated that the average American wastes almost 250 pounds of food each year.

The Consequences of Food Waste
Food waste in America has serious environmental, social, and economic consequences. Discarded food items are one of the most common kinds of municipal waste. They comprise over 20% of the waste that makes it into municipal landfills. Producing all that wasted food uses fresh water and land resources as well as adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and increasing the rate of climate change.

At the same time, millions of people in the United States struggle with hunger or food insecurity. According to the USDA, 35 million people experienced hunger in 2019, and over 13 million households with children had periods where they did not know if they would have enough food. The billions of tons of wasted food could make a big difference in solving this social problem.

For grocery stores and other commercial food distributors, annual food waste costs about $57 billion every year. Not only do the stores have to pay for these products and their transportation, but they also pay for their disposal when they go to waste. Unpurchased food takes up precious shelf space before it goes to the dumpster.

Preparing to Address Commercial Food Waste
For a commercial establishment, combating food waste will take some preparation and investment. You will have to understand your business’s waste patterns and adopt practices that avoid them. With careful planning, you may discover that your customers are a great ally in handling the problem.

Waste Analysis

Before you start changing your store policies and practices, you should understand the cycle of waste in your business. The first step will be getting a handle on what gets thrown away each day. Is your dumpster full of produce or expired dairy items? Does your staff routinely discard expired “Best if used by” products? Knowing the content of your daily waste will help you understand what you are doing right and what needs improvement.

Data Analytics
Data analysis is a growing field that affects every industry. For food-related businesses, following purchase and disposal data over a year will help you discover annual patterns of waste. Although you cannot predict every consumer trend, you can see when you are overstocking products, a common cause of wasted food.

A Cultural Shift
If you are committed to minimizing food waste at your store, it will require some changes in your business model. The long-range financial and social benefits of reducing waste may come at the cost of some short-term profits. It is important to remember that consumers are looking for companies who are concerned about the needs of the local community. Younger shoppers are attracted to businesses that are addressing environmental concerns. Taking a stand on food waste can help you reach new consumer markets.

Sharing with the Community
A helpful step in adopting a low-waste plan is connecting with the leadership of organizations that feed hungry people in your area. You may be able to move some of your nearly-expired products by reducing the price, but you should also look for ways to donate items to non-profit organizations. Not only will these groups quickly put the food to good use, but caring for the local community will improve the reputation of your enterprise.

Customer Education Programs
Residential waste is the highest source of discarded food items. If you are serious about making a difference, your store can play a part in educating consumers about positive shopping practices and food label meanings.

Food Shopping 101
When most consumers think about grocery shopping, their primary concern is the price. This attitude can lead to shoppers purchasing more of an item than they will use if it is on sale. Your store could offer a series of shopping tips and education programs. If you have a store app, it could include a way to create a weekly menu and an online shopping list. Families who plan what they are going to eat waste less food.

Expiration Education
One of the primary causes of retail and residential food waste revolves around expiration labels. There are some products such as dairy or meat that can cause serious health issues if someone consumes them after they have expired. However, many products have a “best by” or “best if used by” label. These items are still safe to eat but may lose some of their nutrition or flavor over time. A product on the store shelf or in the pantry that is past its “best by” date is still suitable for use.

Composting to Minimize Organic Waste
In the right location, your store may be able to set up a community compost site. Composting at your location will lower your disposal costs and give customers a place to bring their compostable waste to keep it out of landfills. This site is another opportunity for community outreach through seminars on proper composting practices.

Customer Incentive Programs
Since cost is a major factor in consumer buying habits, your store can use its prices to put a dent in food waste. You could designate a part of the store for reduced-price items, or you could have them as a lower-price option mixed into the aisles.

Price Reductions for Items near Expiration
With the advent of UPC and QR codes, it is much easier to get advanced information about the products in your store. This data makes it possible to track items as they approach their expiration dates. It can be a challenge to know how to price near-expiration products. If the price is too high, consumers may pay a little bit extra to get a fresher item. If it is too low, consumers may suspect there is an issue with the item and avoid it. Product rotation software can help with smart markdowns that will move products while minimizing lost revenue.

An “Ugly” Produce Stand
Customers judge the taste of a piece of produce by its appearance. They have strong opinions of what their fruits and vegetable should look like. However, the apples that go into a pie do not need to have uniformly red skins. Carrots and potatoes that are sliced or cubed do not need to a perfect shape. To prevent waste in your produce section, you might consider having a reduced-price area for imperfect produce. Customers will save money, and fewer items will go to the landfill.

Looking for Win-Win Solutions
Wasted food helps no one. It is a drain on your profits and damaging to the environment. By adopting a waste minimization program at your grocery or convenience store, you will have an impact that goes beyond the financial benefits. You will make a significant difference in the health and wellbeing of your customers and community.

Learn About our Stop Waste Together Program

Author Bio

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.