Reinventing big-box stores


Energy-guzzling chiller cabinets, food wastage, overpackaging…big-box stores don’t always have a good image with consumers. But some of them have found new ways of responding to these problems.


In France, 72.2% of people do their food shopping in hypermarkets, supermarkets and discounters. But they don’t exactly enjoy it – 69% of them describe shopping in large stores as a « chore », according to a survey carried out by IFOP[1].

In light of this, some distributors are trying to find new ways of restoring their tarnished image among consumers, but they are also keen to adopt approaches that are more sustainable and better for the environment. While saving energy and providing customers with greater convenience, these solutions are revolutionising our big-box stores.

Levels of energy consumption to send shivers down your spine

One of the issues that constantly rears its head is commercial refrigeration. Unpleasant for customers, the refrigerated sections of supermarkets swallow up 40% of their total energy consumption, and represent their biggest energy expense. Fitting single or double glazed doors in front of the chiller cabinets produces energy savings of between 20% and 50%. After a prod from the French government in 2012, all the main chains have now committed to this action, and three-quarters of them have set the target of changing their refrigerated sections by 2020.

Some of them are going even further, like the UK chain Sainsbury’s, which started using a refrigerant derived from sugar beet at its Portishead store in 2015. As a replacement for R404A, the most common refrigerant used in supermarkets, this new product is derived from hydrocarbons or ammonia. This sugar beet derivative is a residue of bioethanol production, so it does not consume additional raw materials, and it also has a lower moisture content than alternative refrigerants, which makes it less likely to freeze in the system.

When it comes to saving energy, the discounters are not allowing themselves to be outdone. Just over the border from France, the new Aldi store in the German town of Rastatt has set itself the goal of reducing its energy consumption by 50%. The store is lit by natural skylights and by lamps that adapt to ambient light. Thanks to a closed-circuit geothermal system, particular areas of the store can be heated or cooled in a targeted way, especially the refrigerated sections.

Wasted food, wasted money

Food waste is another problem for supermarkets. Amance-Eudine Rouzier, the founder of the startup Wektoo, decided to tackle the problem of managing out-of-date products. « On average, food waste costs every store €20,000 a month », she estimates. So she has has set up a system that helps store staff to detect products on the shelves that are coming up to their use-by date. The aim is to reduce waste by improving how these products are managed. With the recent passing of the food waste law in France, this solution could not have come at a better time.

Better late than never

If the above-mentioned solutions still fail to eliminate food waste, it can always be turned into fertiliser. This is the mission of US-based WISErg. Its founders are trying to persuade supermarkets, restaurants and cafes to transform their perishable waste into liquid fertiliser by installing a nutrient recovery system on their premises. It promises to provide two things: no unpleasant odours, and organic fertiliser for growing fruit and vegetables.

Reducing packaging

Finally, the question of packaging presents another problem for big-box stores. Consumers and distributors alike tend to suffer pangs of conscience when they are faced with overpackaged products. To the point that, over the last few years, the trend for selling loose goods has accelerated in supermarkets, organic shops and major hypermarket chains. Chains such as Day by Day in France specialise in selling loose goods. Customers can come along to one of its 16 stores with their own containers and buy the exact quantities they want. Once they get home there’s very little to throw in the waste bin.

If you want to reduce packaging on your fruit and vegetables, why not pick them at your supermarket? This is the somewhat futuristic idea of Infarm, a German start-up that has installed a vertical greenhouse (in columns) in a Metro outlet in Berlin. Vegetables and fresh herbs are grown using hydroponics, a method of growing plants in shallow water using natural fertilisers and oxygen. Customers can take what they need from the greenhouse and pay at the till. Could this be a first step towards urban farms in supermarkets?

From saving energy to recycling perished goods and reducing packaging – entrepreneurs are certainly not short of ideas for reinventing big-box stores. And who knows, perhaps these new ideas will reconcile the French with their supermarket shopping?

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[1] The French and connected retail, Baromètre IFOP-WINCOR NIXDORF, October 2012