Unilever Expands Refill Trials in the U.K.

After a successful trial with Asda last year, Unilever is launching the largest refill trial of its kind in the U.K., offering popular personal and household care products in return-on-the-go and refill-on-the-go formats.

After its experimentation with three refill/reuse models at Asda’s Sustainability Store in Leeds last year exceeded expectations, Unilever is moving full throttle ahead with its “test and learn” trials of refillable and reusable packaging formats in the U.K. Continuing its partnership with Beauty Kitchen, a D2C company that successfully developed the Return•Refill•Repeat model for its own brands, Unilever will be expanding its trials to seven Asda and Co-op stores by year-end 2021. This, it says, will be the first refill trial of its kind at this scale in the U.K.

“We are very much in test and learn mode now, so our current focus is on these trials in the U.K.,” says Unilever. “They will enable us to test different refill models, different store formats and in-store locations, as well as testing the different shopper experiences that could enable long-term use of refillable products. We’re going to be gaining as much new insight and learning from these trials as we can, and this will help inform our next steps and what might be possible in the future.”


   Read how Unilever is working with Algramo in Chile on another refill-on-the-go model.


Unilever’s initial tests with Asda, which began in late October 2020, include seven of the company’s household brands. Persil laundry detergent, Simple liquid handwash, Alberto Balsam shampoo and conditioner, and Radox shower gel are being delivered through touch-free refill machines from Beauty Kitchen; Cif household cleaners are available for in-home refills through a 10X concentrated Ecorefill; and its Pukka and Tips brands of loose tea and tea bags are offered in bulk for packaging in self-serve containers.

Shares Asda, demonstrating positive intent and consumer behavior change in-store, the initial trial resulted in weekly purchases of Persil from the Refill Zone—where the reuse/refill products were grouped—reaching a third higher than the equivalent single-use pack.

Insights gleaned from the trial, as well as from Unilever-commissioned research, include the following:

·     Ninety-four percent of consumers in the U.K. are more likely to invest in refills versus buying new products in-store, if available, and 89% are likely to buy a product because its packaging can be reused.

·      Almost one-fifth (18%) of shoppers want a sealed product option and to be able to return bottles to the store (16%). Twenty-five percent would be interested in a loyalty or reward scheme.

·      Nearly one-third say value for money offered by the Refill Stations was a key reason for being likely to purchase in the future.

A touch-free refill-on-the-go machine for Radox shower gel allows users to refill a reusable bottle in store.A touch-free refill-on-the-go machine for Radox shower gel allows users to refill a reusable bottle in store.Guided by the learnings from the Asda trial, for the first time Unilever will be implementing a return-on-the-go model with the expanded program. In this model, shoppers looking for a quicker, grab-and-go purchase can pick up a prefilled, stainless-steel bottle of product from the shelf and return it in-store once the product is used. From there, the bottles will be collected for cleaning and refilling.

The expanded trials will also include the refill-on-the-go model, with touch-free machines manufactured by RBC Group that will be maintained by Beauty Kitchen. Explains Unilever, “The stations being used in the Home Care & Beauty & Personal Care trials have been adapted for the current COVID-19 environment, specifically with the fitting of closing doors, which means the refill product is shielded during pouring, and with the addition of QR code technology, which allows shoppers to complete the refill process ‘touchless,’ i.e., without touching the machine’s screen.”

The reusable bottles for the refill-on-the-go and return-on-the-go systems were designed by Beauty Kitchen and are made from stainless steel or aluminum for durability purposes, “to enable them to be used and reused time and again in the Return•Refill•Repeat model,” Unilever explains. “If they do reach an end of life in their current form, for whatever reason, they are fully recyclable or can be returned for reuse.”

Each bottle has a unique QR code, a feature that provides traceability of the package, allowing Unilever to track the full buy/use/refill process and gain better insight on the circular model. Messaging on the bottle advises consumers to wash the package thoroughly with warm water and leave it to dry naturally before returning it to the store.

At Asda, Unilever’s refill stations are grouped in the store’s Refill Zone.At Asda, Unilever’s refill stations are grouped in the store’s Refill Zone.Says Jo-Ann Chidley, co-founder of Return•Refill•Repeat, “Our goal is to democratize the circular economy using Cradle-to-Cradle design, to work with businesses like Unilever to give consumers access to more sustainable products. By designing packaging to be circular and smart alongside advanced Refill and Return stations, we are making it accessible for consumers to reduce their plastic consumption, track their impact, and change their behavior from one of consuming packaging to reusing it.”

In a rare show of support for a major CPG’s sustainability initiative, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of NGO A Plastic Planet, had this to say about Unilever’s expansion of its refill program: “Imagine a world where we don’t throw plastic packaging away, useful for moments but existing on our planet for centuries. When huge self-confessed polluters like Unilever try to change the system, not just hiding behind recycled plastic as a half-hearted answer, we need to applaud and support them. One day our bathroom and kitchen cupboards will be filled with permanent refillable packaging, and we will look back in wonderment at why we took so long to realize it is the only way forward.”

Unilever’s refill trials will be conducted in five Asda stores in England, in Middleton in Leeds, Rugby, Toryglen, York, and Milton Keynes; one Asda store in Glasgow, Scotland; and two Co-op convenience stores in England, in Huddersfield and York. 


   Read how Unilever is using certified circular plastic for its Magnum ice cream tubs.



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