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Waste-free shopping

Having marked its first year in business, an Ottawa zero-waste grocer is ready for more

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Step inside Ottawa’s NU Grocery and you’ll see all the usual items you’d expect to see at a food store: fruit, veggies, pastas, spices, baked goods, cereals, jam, dairy and even toothpaste and beauty aids. What you won’t see is any disposable packaging. None.

NU is one of just a handful of zero-waste grocery stores across the country (the first in Ontario), and is catering to a growing contingent of consumers looking to reduce the amount of waste they generate. At NU, customers bring their own bottles and bags and fill them up with goods from an assortment of bulk bins and other containers, weigh the items and pay.

Inspired by the zero-waste grocery stores in Europe and a belief that Ottawa would support such a venture, Valérie Leloup and business partner Sia Veeramani, both adopters of the zero-waste lifestyle, opened NU in the city’s Hintonburg neighbourhood in August 2017.

While Leloup is no stranger to business—she racked up a decade’s worth of experience at Danone in Europe and Quebec—running a grocery store was new territory. But one year in, Leloup is pleased with the 1,500-sq.-ft. store’s progress. “We have a good base of regular, very loyal customers … and every day we see new people coming in, asking questions, so we feel that we probably opened at the right time and we’re very optimistic for what’s ahead of us.”

We recently chatted with Leloup about the past year, the lessons traditional grocers can learn from the zero-waste model, and what’s next for NU.

Is there anything that you’ve had to tweak at NU over the past year?
There are so many little tasks in retail, it never stops. Our big challenge is really to put in place processes to simplify things, but I think that’s the challenge for any retailer. There has been a steep learning curve for us in terms of products and what’s popular. I’d say we started off with an assortment of about 350 products and now we’re at over 700 [items that are organic or local wherever possible] and that is really the result of the many interactions that we’ve had with our customers, and also trying to identify the profile of our customers. We found we have a lot of vegan customers, for example, so we’ve added a lot of vegan items. We’re constantly trying to find products that will please our customers and that are also zero waste— that’s a challenge we have.

Has NU become a community hub also?
Yes, that’s what we always wanted. We have workshops very regularly. It’s a great way to get people into the space.

In recent years, more zero-waste grocers have popped up, indicating an appetite for these stores—why would you say that is?
The issue of waste is coming on the radar much more. Two or three years ago you barely saw a headline on waste; now you see it more and more. But very often, people are aware of the problem and [know] that they should try to create less waste, but they don’t have the opportunity to do that. So, what we’re creating with the store is the opportunity.

Are there lessons traditional grocers could learn from this model?
I think the No. 1 thing I would say is that as a traditional retailer, you don’t have to be a zero-waste grocer to significantly reduce your waste; there are so many low-hanging fruits. Do a waste audit and identify those low-hanging fruits, because they could cut waste significantly. Some grocery stores don’t even have composting in place—they don’t separate organic from non-organic waste. That is really something that is not difficult to put in place; it’s a small cost.

What’s next?
A second location. We’re really at the beginning of investigating where. We’re going to map out where our customers come from to see where it makes sense to open. We have some ideas, but we just need to narrow it down.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s September/October 2018 issue.

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