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How labelling and scanning can reduce supermarket food waste

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

Think of wonky vegetables, cans with misprinted labels, multipacks that have been opened, and confectionary with seasonal packaging. These are all instances where food has to be reduced to clear or discarded because it’s considered not fit for sale.

The amount of food you waste will probably not be down to purchasing too much or poor stock rotation, but more likely customer perception of freshness. There is also confusion over labels – research shows that people tend to wrongly believe ‘use by’ relates to quality and ‘best before’ relates to food safety.

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

However, these solutions are still in development and are yet to come to market. Manufacturers are also required to display ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates on labels by law. 

So what can food retail IT managers do to address food waste their end?

Manage stock and reduce products using real-time information

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

From a customer perspective, a later date will mean 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 – ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ labels aren’t a legal requirement and are used to help staff to rotate stock, but, legally, any food with a ‘use by’ can’t be sold after the date stated.

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 it or the staff will work out a new price.

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

The addition of a wireless label printer that communicates with a scanner or smart device that is connected to the 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 stickers without any hassle.

It’s also worth considering how technology can enable you to create value from food that doesn’t end up getting sold and improve your operations – there are smart platforms acting as digital B2B marketplaces and offering businesses the chance to sell surplus food. These can be particularly useful if local schools and charities are unable to take if off your hands.

Customise labels to educate customers 

Clearing reduced stock is great for business, but an increase in your profit doesn’t necessarily equate to a reduction in waste. 

The UK government’s waste adviser Wrap says that retailers account for just a tiny margin (around 2 percent) of all food wasted. Meanwhile, households are responsible for nearly half.

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 digestible explainers about why wonky and bruised fruit is perfectly edible or what the 'use by' and 'best before' labels mean.

If customers know you are taking waste seriously and doing something practical to address the issue – signing up to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, for instance – 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 healthy for business operations and your bottom line.