Before it hit the rock-and-roll charts as a great music video, “Steady as you go” was a nautical phrase that means doing what you have to do to continue in the current heading. Whether or not they think that America is headed in the right direction, a large majority of the shoppers we talk with are trying to hold steady as they pass through treacherous waters.
That’s not to say they aren’t worried. There’s a whole normal curve of worry out there. Those on the worried side, and those who are whistling a happy tune to keep worry at bay think those who aren’t worried at all are nuts. Worried or whistling, most are trying to spend less and hold on to cash. They are turning to coupons in droves, and looking for packages and products that help them save. One of our panelists wrote to us to ask: “Where are the refillables? I think I could save money by using them.”
She isn’t alone. Many people are wondering how much damage our throwaway society has done to our environment, our economy and their own spending history. Another of our shoppers asked: “Is our economy really built on throwing everything away? That doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Returnable bottles are hardly sold anymore, and even the idea of having to deal with them again is enough to give many retailers hiccups. But refillable bottles have not disappeared. Quite the contrary: Millions of shoppers refill their bottled water bottles with tap water. A slightly smaller group, still in the millions, refills their single-serve water bottles with filtered water or “water-cooler water.” Another group, also in the millions, refills reusable and refillable bottles that they have purchased for that purpose.
Beyond water bottles, more millions of consumers are carrying refillable and reusable shopping bags back to the store because it now feels like the right thing to do, and/or because they may get five cents or so for each paper or plastic bag they don’t use.
Because of all their environmental as well as cost advantages, refillable packages need to be reconsidered, perhaps even for categories where they didn’t exist before. Refillables fit into the do-it-yourself trend that is sweeping over shoppers who suddenly have more time than money.
Think about the heat-and-serve packages used for prepared foods and rotisserie chickens. Could shoppers get a 50-cent credit for each one they returned to the store? Could the packages be sterilized for reuse at store level, or shipped back to a package distributor for sterilization and reuse?
Could companies like Tropicana offer refrigerated orange and grapefruit juice “refills” in spouted bags that consumers could pour into the wonderful jug-handle bottles?
Could milk bottlers teach today’s consumers how to extend their fluid milk by adding less expensive powdered milk and water? I say “teach” because one of the grandmothers on our panel told us that she had suggested powdered milk to her grandkids and none of them had ever heard of it. “When things were tight, we used to buy powdered milk and mix it half and half with bottled milk to give the kids more protein at less cost. They wouldn’t drink it straight but couldn’t tell the difference once it was mixed together in a milk bottle and served cold.”
Some states and municipalities are already considering mandating refills. And some retailers may think I’m out to cut into their sales and add to their expenses by suggesting they offer more refills. That’s the response I used to get from supermarket executives whenever I tried to tell customers about lower-cost (and usually lower-profit) options.
One of my favorite examples was signs in the meat case explaining the savings per serving or per meal in buying whole chickens rather than the more expensive, value-added parts like thighs, wings or breasts. Even when we provided demos or pamphlets on how to cut a chicken, the signs actually increased the sales of parts-most shoppers had never calculated the cost difference but were surprised that the value-added convenience cost so little extra and felt justified in buying more of it. Given the facts, consumers make spending decisions based on what’s important to them at the time.