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Eye-Tracking Technology Implemented to Promote Unpackaged Produce

Waitrose is employing innovative eye-tracking technology to identify the most effective messaging strategies for encouraging the purchase of unpackaged fruits and vegetables.


Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The initiative aligns with the broader goal of reducing plastic packaging waste associated with weekly grocery shopping.


The technology, concealed within discreetly designed glasses, provides researchers with valuable insights into consumer behavior. Footage captures shoppers' interactions with commonplace produce, facilitating detailed analysis of the impact of in-store messaging.


The trial, conducted in a specific store location, investigates the potential of prompts such as "same quality, no packaging" and "perfectly packaged by nature" in influencing consumer choices. Its aim is to disrupt the cycle that contributes to the staggering amount of plastic packaging discarded by UK households each year.


"Shoppers have got used to the 'convenience' of plastic packaging," explains Joanna Linley of Wrap, an anti-waste charity involved in the trial. "Regardless of what we say, and what we know we should do, realistically when we go into a shop grabbing a bag of something is much easier and more convenient than buying something loose."


Despite voluntary targets adopted by UK supermarkets and food companies to reduce plastic packaging, the industry appears unlikely to meet these goals by the established deadline. The compelling advantages of "choosing loose" produce include a reduction in both plastic and food waste due to more precise portion control.


However, supermarkets face the challenge of balancing consumer preferences with sustainability initiatives. "The biggest thing we need is for people to choose loose when it's available," says Linley. "It's obviously great asking the retailers to sell more loose but if people aren't choosing it, then there's a real disconnect."


Waitrose, mindful of the complexities involved, has expressed a commitment to expanding its unpackaged produce offerings. "One of the biggest challenges is that customers pick up items, go to the weighing scales, and then only at that point realize how much they're actually going to be paying," says Catherine Loader, Waitrose's sustainability manager. "That's something that we've been working on… how do we move to per-piece pricing, so it's really clear."


Beyond eye-tracking technology, the trial gathers data through shopper interviews, with the findings to be shared across the industry. While some shoppers demonstrate an established preference for unpackaged produce, others express a strong inclination towards the convenience of pre-packaged options.


Amidst the challenges, countries like France have adopted legislative measures to ban packaging for specific products. In the UK, there's discussion of potential government guidelines to address this issue.


Major supermarkets have indicated support for such interventions, with Tesco expressing a preference for a phased approach that ensures a level playing field for all retailers.


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