Let Them Eat Bulk: The Success of France’s Cheap, Zero-Waste Food Chain

Would you rather pay for packaging or for food? A growing chain of French stores is catering to shoppers who want to produce less waste and save money.

(Photo: Day by Day/Facebook)

Jan 19, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Bea Johnson is the author of the bestselling book “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Waste,” a speaker and blogger whose family has been living waste-free since 2008.

VERSAILLES, France—Burlap bags line the storefront windows of Day by Day, a fast-growing chain of bulk stores that are popping up all over France. Decorative tin cans mingle with glass jars in all sorts of shapes and sizes on the shelves, loose bars of soap release a pleasant aroma—all reminiscent of the grocery store that I could have dreamed up trying to reproduce Oleson’s Mercantile as depicted in the Little House on the Prairie TV show.

I was recently invited to the Versailles branch to sign copies of my book Zero Waste Home, a guide to leading a zero-waste lifestyle, and the displays there are incomparable to any I have seen when I shop from bulk bins at stores like Whole Foods in the U.S., or hundreds of stores worldwide specializing in packaging-free foods.

Going packaging-free for food purchases by frequenting bulk foods sections is a high-impact way to shrink your waste: In the U.S., about 30 percent of total waste is food containers and packaging, such as cereal boxes, milk cartons, and potato chip bags.

MORE WAYS YOU CAN: Shrink Your Waste

If the cozy aesthetic lures customers into the French stores, then the variety keeps them coming back. A large inventory is sold in bulk: savory and sweet snacks, oils and vinegars, and dry staples such as flour, legumes, and grains. From angel-hair to ziti, I counted 27 kinds of pasta in this store alone. Beyond food and cleaning products, it also sells hygiene products, such as solid toothpaste and shampoo bars made with natural ingredients, and reusable goods, such as washable makeup-removal pads.

All the packaging-free consumables a zero-waste household could dream of. Customers go in with their own containers, weigh them, fill them, and are able to come home with no packaging whatsoever. They buy as little or as much as they need, which means the store provides a solution to the 44 pounds of food—15 pounds of which are unopened—the average French consumer wastes each year, according to a study by French environmental officials.

“Over several years, we’ve noticed a constant decrease in consumers going to supermarkets. They are looking to shop closer to home, but they also want to know more about the products that they purchase, and because of the economic crisis, they look to save money, particularly in food,” Day by Day co-owner Didier Onraita told TakePart. “They also want to consume more responsibly, pollute less, and limit waste. All these factors made us want to launch a store concept that would be close, sell quality products in just the right quantity and without packaging.”

Onraita isn’t new to the grocery store business. After working as a consultant in the retail industry for 25 years, he teamed up with business partner David Sutrat to open the first location of the chain in Meudon, just outside Paris.

The chain now counts nine locations spread out through northern and western France and the Paris suburbs. It received 1,000 franchise requests in 2015. It plans to open 25 more stores by the end of 2016 and aims to have 100 locations by 2018.

Day by Day storefront in Versailles. (Photo: Day by Day/Facebook)

Compared with the rest of the continent, the French create more packaging waste per capita, according to the European Environment Agency, an independent advisory body of the European Union. In late 2014, the agency found, in a report that called on businesses to make greener decisions for consumers, that “sustainable ways of satisfying our needs are emerging, but they need more support.”

What may not have been foreseen is that those greener choices can lead to success, as companies like Day by Day meet the needs of the evolving market that the larger distributors fail to adapt to. As people’s interest in reducing waste and the zero-waste lifestyle grow, so does the demand for bulk, and so can the number of franchise locations. The small-shop atmosphere goes beyond promoting contact with the owner to promise access to a variety of bulk foods at prices 5 to 40 percent cheaper than those of big-box stores. At Day by Day, brown rice is 2.1 euros a kilogram—it sells for half a euro more at chain supermarket Auchan. Organic oatmeal is 2.85 euros a kilogram at Day by Day but sells for 4.04 euros a kilogram elsewhere.

The road to success was not, however, a smooth one. As for any commercial start-up, funding and building a clientele were a challenge.

“A lot of consumers doubt the cleanliness of the containers, which is why we systematically dismantle, clean, and dry each container before refilling it. It represents a cost of labor that we had to include in our business model,” Onraita said.

The cleanliness is one reason shoppers have embraced the stores. For restaurateur Sophie Pavillard, shopping in bulk means meeting the bottom line without having to buy and store enormous amounts of premium ingredients, such as the almond and cocoa powders used in popular cakes for diners at Le Sept. “Our clients love them. We do not need to stock those items—we just buy the amount needed, and we come back when we need more,” Pavillard said.

Author Bea Johnson with Day by Day co-owner Didier Onraita.
(Photo: Courtesy Bea Johnson)

The biggest hurdle for the Day by Day proprietors was getting suppliers of popular products to sell huge amounts of goods without the packaging.

“It’s easy to source packages of 150 grams for items but much harder to find supplies in bags of 5, 10, or 20 kilograms. It takes a lot of convincing to get suppliers to sell products to be resold in bulk and at a price point that will satisfy the consumer,” Onraita said.

To solve the supply problem, the company invested in a warehouse and hired someone to manage the inventory.

It’s not just the French who are fans of Day by Day—entrepreneurs all over the world ask to import the concept to their country.

“We receive many requests from overseas, and we’d of course be happy to eventually expand internationally, but we’re not yet ready to open in other countries—we prefer to first be well established in our own country before exporting our concept elsewhere,” Onraita said.

From what I have learned about and seen of the chain, it’s on track to do just that. And I can only dream that one day, those 27 types of pasta will be available to my family.

For more tips on going zero waste, in France or anywhere, check out author Bea Johnson's book.