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Supermarkets Finding That Less Stuff Means More Money (And Less Waste)

Feeling lost in the supermarket? You may be in luck: Big stores are starting to cut down on the endless options in an attempt to waste less inventory.

We think we want more. We actually want less: less variety, less confusion, less options. This counterintuitive Paradox of Choice (watch the TED talk by Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz to understand how this works) is driving a new movement by supermarkets, restaurants, and others to slash some of the billions of dollars in food waste every year, and save hundreds of millions of dollars, by doing something simple: offering less.

In 2008, total food loss in the U.S. climbed to $165.6 billion (at retail prices), about one-third of it in the nation’s supermarkets. Yet our waste stream keeps on growing: Today, up to 40% of the nation’s food supply is tossed, up from 30% in 1974. While the national trend isn’t reversing, companies armed with massive data sets about what sells and what doesn’t have found ways to increase profits and cut waste.

The NRDC reports that new technologies are revealing massive opportunities to turn waste into profit by restaurants, large retailers, and even at home, according to its 2012 report, "Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill."

For supermarkets, most of the savings come by way of offering fewer but fresher products. The Stop and Shop/Giant Landover chain saved $100 million by eliminating whole categories of products, by stacking up fewer fruits and vegetables and taking a data-driven look at their own business. The end result? Higher customer satisfaction, less rotting food and three-day fresher produce on average. Trader Joe’s has known this for a while: Instead of 50,000 products carried by the average grocery store, it stocks 4,000. Similarly, redesigned product displays can make produce bins appear more full, boost sales, cut waste, and keep shoppers happy without erecting pyramids of semi-rotting food.

Plenty of tools are applying the same principles in restaurants—like Food Genius or Menu Insights—and at home with Green Egg Shopper, LoveFoodHateWaste, and Food Storage and Shelf Life. Could it be that we’re working on a new model of waste less, enjoy more?