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How labelling and scanning can cut retail food waste

If you work in food retail, it’s likely that you view food waste as an inevitable fact of business. 

Think of imperfect fruit and vegetables, cans with misprinted labels, opened multipacks and confectionery with seasonal packaging. These are all instances where food is considered not fit for sale and is discarded or sold as reduced to clear.

The problem is huge across the continent as 88 million tonnes of food are wasted throughout the EU supply chain every year with associated costs estimated at €143 billion. As 5% of EU food waste happens at the retail and wholesale stages of the food cycle1, this works out at 4.4 million tonnes of wasted food worth €7.2 billion.

Food waste also has a huge impact on the environment as a whopping 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions2 are associated with food that is not consumed.

The amount of food wasted isn’t likely to be due to purchasing too much or poor stock rotation, but customer perceptions of freshness. There is a common misunderstanding around labels – the EU Commission report on food waste identifies confusion around “best before” and “use by” labelling as a contributory factor in the growing food waste issue1.

There are innovations in the pipeline that will address these issues by providing real-time information about the condition of food -  whether it’s packaging with sensors that change colour when its contents are expiring, or smart ‘bump’ labelling that changes texture when produce is going off.

However, as these solutions are still in development and are yet to come to market, what can food retail managers do now to address the problem around food waste management?

Manage stock and reduce products using real-time information

The nature of food retail means shelves need to look full in order to make products more attractive to customers.

From a customer perspective, a later date indicates a product is fresh, while a product nearing its expiry will be considered inferior. This leads to some stock inevitably needing to be reduced on the last day it can be sold.

For the majority of supermarkets and small to medium sized retailers, the process of reducing stock is the same. Staff scan barcodes of items nearing their ‘use by’ expiry.

The system then uses previous days’ trading to tell them how much of the stock left is forecast to sell. And then, based on this, either the system or the staff will work out a new price.

It’s worth considering this approach if you haven’t already invested in a process that allows you to manage stock levels in real-time and/or enables you to choose to reduce products manually.

How can label printers help cut food waste?

Introducing a wireless label printer that communicates with a scanner or smart device connected to your back office’s software means that products can be reduced based on up-to-date information. For example, staff may notice that a reduced product isn’t selling as well as forecasted, so can drop the price again and quickly print out the required labels without any hassle.

It’s also worth considering how technology can help you extract the most value out of unsold food, but minimising your financial losses doesn’t necessarily equate to a reduction in food waste. There are smart platforms acting as digital B2B marketplaces that are offering businesses the chance to sell surplus food. These can be particularly useful if local schools, charities and foodbanks are unable to take it off your hands.

What are the benefits of addressing food waste management?

Businesses with food waste reduction initiatives are more likely to get financial benefits from their actions. Research from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that for most companies, for every $1 invested in reducing food waste, they saved $14 or more3.

Having food waste management initiatives also enhances your brand reputation as it’s something high on the radar of the public. In 2021, 66% of European consumers say they’d be willing to adapt their diet to be more sustainable. It’s been heightened during the pandemic, as 37% of global consumers said their interest in sustainable products had increased2.

Which European food waste initiatives should you be aware of?

The EU and Member States have committed to halving global food waste per capita at retail and consumer levels, and to reducing food losses along production and supply chains by 2030. This is in-line with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal Target 12, which seeks to ensure sustainable consumption and production and includes a specific target on cutting food waste.1

The EU throws out an average of 173kg of food per person per year2 , but retail accounts for only a small amount of food wastage. Households generate more than half of the total food waste in the EU – the equivalent of 47 million tonnes.3

How can customised food labels help to educate customers?

One issue is that customers may buy reduced products, but then throw them out if they don’t eat them on the day they're purchased. There’s an opportunity here for retailers of all sizes to customise labels to educate customers on what constitutes freshness.

One option is to generate and print out QR code stickers, especially for loose fruit and vegetables that don’t have labels and may be bruised from mishandling. Many shoppers are smartphone users and are likely to respond to some form of call-to-action. By scanning the QR code, customers could be directed to a website with information about why imperfect and bruised fruit is perfectly edible or what the 'use by' and 'best before' labels actually mean.

If customers know you are taking food waste management seriously and doing something practical to address the issue – then they’re more likely to return and shop with you again.

Ultimately, embracing new technologies and challenging customer behaviour won’t eliminate food waste altogether, but it’ll be a healthy start for business operations and your bottom line.

Find out more about Brother’s food labelling solutions and label printers.

2 - ©Stylus Media Group 2021

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