Eco-Conscious, Food

The Wally Shop: Plastic-Free Bulk Shopping

One of the biggest bummers for me in the year 2020 has been how the global pandemic has made it harder than ever to avoid single use plastics. I was grocery shopping exclusively through curbside pickup for a few months and there was no option available to request no plastic bags. Now back shopping in-person, my preferred grocery store (that does not have self checkout) has asked customers not to use their own bulk bags/containers. Another store I shop at doesn’t really police their self checkout and I can use my own produce bags. It’s definitely been a setback in a year where I was really trying in earnest to reduce my plastic use. Using less plastic was one of my 2020 New Year’s resolutions.

On a personal note, I’ve also been absolutely awful about ordering stuff on Amazon this year. Part of it is not wanting to make trips in public that aren’t necessary and part of it is the fact that we’re still in a new house, have a new dog and have been doing so many home DIY projects. My packaging consumption has been off the charts this year.

I hope that by 2021 we are back to normal shopping habits and stores begin allowing customers to bring in their own containers and bags again. In the meantime, I’ve found a home bulk food delivery service I’m SUPER excited to tell you about!

What is The Wally Shop?

Watch The Wally Shop’s Kickstarter video from 2019 to get a sense of their concept and mission

The Wally Shop started as a bike courier delivery service in New York City in 2018 for groceries that did not feature single use packaging. Produce and grocery items were delivered in reusable packaging (like glass jars), you paid a small deposit for those jars until they were returned, and you could have your courier take jars you had used / cleaned at your next drop off (and get your deposit back). In the fall of 2019, they took to Kickstarter to seek crowdfunding for a nationwide model. No longer delivered by bicycle, but relying instead on shipping companies like FedEx and UPS, the company now delivers to the ‘lower 48’ and is still honoring their original concept of reusable packaging.

You can read this Fast Company article from 2019 about the company’s origins. I find it so interesting that the founder is a former Amazon packaging/shipping representative – someone who really understands logistics of product delivery and the challenge posed by non-reusable shipping materials. Fast forward to 2020, the delivery model is super appealing in the midst of a global pandemic.

What Can You Buy from The Wally Shop?

Think of The Wally Shop as the shop for products you’d likely be able to buy in bulk in your grocery store bulk food section – and maybe some you can’t. They sell staple dry goods like flour, oats, nuts, granola, dried fruit, pastas, rice and even oils and vinegars like olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and baking essentials such as baking powder, cocoa powder and various sugars. You can also buy nut butters, syrups, honeys, coffee, tea and spices.

I’m not sure what the bulk food landscape looks like where you live – but I am not able to buy vinegars, pastas or rice in bulk – so this actually offers more than what I can buy in my region in a bulk format. Products ship in reusable containers in a variety of sizes and you pay a deposit on those jars until you return them.

I will note that I’ve been eyeing The Wally Shop storefront for a few weeks to see what products sell out quickly. I can’t buy granola or almond butter in time before it sells out. I’m sure this is part of the logistics of this still being a relatively new company (as far as their nationwide reach) and I’m sure COVID-19 has disrupted some supply chains. So you may not be able to get everything you want in each order.

What I Bought from The Wally Shop

I stocked up on some pantry staples that I use quite a bit of in our household in a variety of types. I tried to get a variety of products to test out the quality, packaging and pricing. My first order included the following (I’ve sorted loosely by type and by packaging in a normal scenario)

Dried fruits, nuts, beans (Typically packed in plastic bags or plastic clamshell packaging at the grocery store):

  • 16 oz. dried apricots ($3.20)
  • 16 oz. banana chips ($1.60)
  • 16 oz. Medjool dates ($3.49)
  • 16 oz. shredded coconut ($1.93)
  • 16 oz. raw almonds ($3.22)
  • 16 oz. walnuts ($2.50)
  • 16 oz. pecans ($4.49)
  • 32 oz. red kidney beans ($3.43)
  • 16 oz. chickpeas ($1.77)

Spices and Oils/Butters (Typically packaged in glass or plastic containers at the grocery store):

  • 16 oz. distilled white vinegar ($0.84)
  • 16 oz. smooth peanut butter ($2.81)
  • 16 oz. sea salt ($1.33)

Pasta and Grains (Typically packaged in cardboard packaging or plastic bags at the grocery store):

  • 32 oz. quinoa fusilli pasta ($3.59)

How Does the Pricing Compare?

One of my frustrations with The Wally Shop is that it is difficult to comprehend how much of a product you’ll actually get. Buying in bulk is such a visual thing – you know by the look how many almonds or how much oatmeal you’ll need in your kitchen. Product labeling per the FDA requires that food products have their weight on the packaging – not their volume. The Wally Shop tells you the price and the volume of the container it will come to you in – and when you click into the product description, they have do tell you the net weight and price per ounce.

You do have to do some research to compare it to shopping at your local store.

My order total was $76.19, of which $34.20 was in product, $8.99 was in shipping and $33.00 was in packaging deposits (which I’ll get back when I return the containers). I did some price comparison at a major national grocery chain (known as Pick ‘n Save here, but is part of Kroger nationally) in Green Bay to check on these prices vs. the prices at the grocery store. I also compared packaging.

Now a couple notes on this:

  1. You do have to pay the container deposit, and I’m not really 100% sure how this is calculated – my bottle deposit for my order was $33 for 13 products. I get that back as I return the containers. So until you return the containers – you are paying roughly an extra $2.50 per product to rent the container it came to you in.
  2. It may take you different timeframes to use products up. We use a TON of dried beans in our household, but not as much vinegar. I likely won’t get all $33 in deposits back at once.
  3. You can’t pick the container size – so if you know you are not going to use all of something up, it may not be efficient to buy 16 oz. of it.

Once I received my order, I weighed every single item, minus the weight of the jar it came in (the tare weight). I then did a truly apples to apples comparison of product by weight in both cases and compared the price per ounce. Overall, The Wally Shop is cheaper per ounce for many products (the ones highlighted in green).

Now, just because I love spreadsheets, let’s assume that you don’t return the containers (you forget) or you take a long time to use up a product. Is The Wally Shop STILL more expensive factoring in the container deposit? That’s where the numbers get interesting and where your neighborhood grocery store might be more competitively priced (the ones highlighted in yellow).

What Does Your Order Arrive In?

Your order arrives in a reusable shipping tote that you hold onto until you are ready to return it to the courier or return containers in it. ALL packaging that food is in can be returned to The Wally Shop once you are done with it. No waste! Oh, and you don’t pay an additional fee for pick up – that was built into your initial shipping charge.

So a note on the pickup of the canvas tote. I’m going to have to give The Wally Shop 2/10 on their customer service because I tried to schedule a pickup of my tote online, got an error message and then sent TWO emails to their service inbox. It took four days for me to get any response. I ended up dropping off the tote at the UPS Store on my own because I hadn’t heard back from them to schedule a home pickup. Then, once I got a $21 deposit back for my packaging that I had returned – I discovered that they don’t automatically refund your deposit back to your account. You have to email them and request that you be able to redeem your deposit. Based on my experience emailing them before – I don’t have high hopes here. The lack of customer service for a fully online company is honestly unacceptable.

The Final Word

I really like this concept and particularly until bulk food shopping returns to normal (ie, being able to bring in my own packaging and containers to the store) – this is fabulous, cost effective alternative to plastic packaging. I do find it a bit frustrating that items sell out at such a quick clip and that their customer service SUCKS, but that’s just a reality of trying to supply products to a growing online audience in the midst of a global pandemic.

One other note – while this post is focused on The Wally Shop, I feel like I was inadvertently talking poorly about Kroger above by using them as my price comparison. I want to give Kroger a shout out for partnering with Terra Cycle and Walgreens on a new initiative called Loop Store which is a super similar concept to The Wally Shop, except they feature beauty products and national chain items in returnable packaging. In addition to returnable packaging, Loop Store works directly with vendors to recycle some products, too, especially ones that are not regularly recyclable through municipal recycling programs. They are effectively “closing the loop” on packaging between producers and end consumers. Their product lineup is still pretty small right now as this is a brand new venture, but I’m excited to keep an eye on it and perhaps give it a try when their selection widens.

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