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Less Waste means more business for Lucy

20 October 2022

Lucy Stones discusses the success of A Little Less Waste in Melton Mowbray.

A Little Less Waste in Melton Mowbray has been trading for less than a year, but its founder Lucy Stones recently won three awards at the Best of Melton Awards evening: Best New Business, Best Independent Retailer, and Business of the Year.  She shares her journey with the Business Gateway’s Peter Allen.

What inspired you to start this business?

We lived in London for many years and shopped at Zero Waste shops there but before that, I grew up here.  We always used to grow our own food and buy locally from farms so that naturally kept waste and packaging down.  I imagine a lot of people around here had the same experience growing up.  With Melton being the food capital of the UK, it felt like the right place to try something like this.

At work I was a nurse and in hospitals you use loads and loads of plastic every day and throw it away, so at home I was thinking, ‘what can I do to make a difference and make it accessible’ so that’s why I set up the shop.  We try to reduce plastic, reduce the airmiles of food and link some local people together.

And how long ago was that?

We’re coming up to our one-year anniversary; we’ve only been open ten months.

Really?  That’s amazing.  And were you business savvy before you set up the shop?   

No, no. I had absolutely no business knowledge whatsoever.  My old English teacher from school used to own this building which is now the Wellness Centre.  Upstairs we have holistic therapies and counsellors, and all sorts of different things.  Next door there was a vegan café, so we felt that this was the right place to do it.  She helped with some business knowledge, and I also spoke to Beth at Refill Revolution in Market Harborough and she helped me a lot. My partner Dan works in marketing, so he helped at the beginning.

It was a team effort.  Me and my parents built the shelves in the shop and we did lots and lots of research.

How did you know there was a market for this before you started?

I did a questionnaire before we set about doing it.  I sent it to the Wellness House mailing list and that’s how we really found out.  There was a very positive indication that people wanted it so that was good, but you never know if that means they’re going to come and spend their money with you.  But they have and it’s been lovely.

When we first started, we didn’t have a lot of stock as we didn’t know what people wanted.  We’ve been growing since we found out what people wanted, and the community has been really good.

So attaching your business to the Wellness Hub was a useful shortcut to getting your business started because it has the right kind of customers already familiar with it and you piggybacked on it.  It would have been much harder without that?   

I don’t think I could have done it, just because, with no business knowledge, you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing half the time. Having support from people in the House definitely helped and having Beth too.

We also had support from Rana, one of your Business Advisers, about six months in, which was nice.  He recommended lots of courses about marketing and finance, sales, how to generate repeat business and so on.  We spoke about all kinds of things – structure, marketing, and he was really helpful, we got loads out of it.

I didn’t have the confidence to make reels (films) before, but the marketing course really helped with that and now I do them all the time.

What about the finance side of things? 

One of my friends is an accountant so that’s helpful for taxes and things like that.  I use the Zero Accounting app to help me too.  But I’m always learning about finance because it’s new to me.

And what would you say have been your biggest mistakes?

It’s been mainly about getting things in, in large quantities, that then don’t sell.  So I might buy 50 kilos of something which doesn’t sell and goes out of date so that wastes money. The other thing is maybe listening too much to customers and responding without there being enough of them to justify the expense.  To start with, you’re almost people pleasing but you need to think about whether an individual suggestion is actually right for the business, cost-wise.

So, I still listen to what everyone says because our community is amazing but I no longer feel that I have to buy everything that they suggest.

And what have been the best things about the business so far?

I think it’s about the community that came together to support me and now they’re all getting to know each other too which is great.  It feels like a hub and it’s quite heart-warming.  Also winning those awards was really good and I wasn’t expecting it at all. I’ve got a team of people now which is also great.

What is your typical customer?

We’ve broadly got two types of customer: we’ve got retired people and then young families. The young families care about the environment and their children’s future, and they like the green aspect of it as do the older people.  The older people like us because it reminds them of how they used to shop years ago with time to chat and a sense of community from doing it this way. So, we help to combat loneliness a little bit too.

What are the myths about a zero waste shop?

The main one is that everything in here is mega expensive.  There are certain things that, if they’re locally sourced or organic, will be more expensive.  But herbs and spices, pulses and beans are so much cheaper than if you bought them in a supermarket. If you buy only what you need of everything else, then we’re cheaper than buying from the supermarket. You don’t need a kilo of pasta for a week, and you don’t need 500g of nuts.  It’s not just about saving money, it’s about reducing food miles and packaging.

Tell me a little more about that.  For example, we have a weekly delivery of shopping and we’re good and not throwing anything away uncooked. Do you think people have to change their shopping habits? 

If we think about the cost-of-living crisis at the moment, we’re all thinking about how we can save money on eating. I’ve done a lot of research recently about this.  If we plan what we’re going to eat for the week, that will keep costs down and ensure that we only buy what we need and don’t have any waste (which is also wasted money of course).

A lot of people go to their supermarket and they buy lots of food and they don’t know what their going to eat that week. And then they have to have more trips when they need a particular ingredient for a recipe, or they’ve forgotten something.  But if we plan what we’re going to eat – so we’re going to have pasta one night, rice another night and lentils the third night – and you just buy what you need, it will still last you the week, but you will save money.

If people went to their local greengrocers to buy fruit and veg and then a shop like ours to buy their dried foods, their supermarket shop would be significantly smaller.  Also, if people want to cook recipes they’ve not tried before and they don’t want to buy lots of different ingredients in quantities that would be expensive, they can come here and buy 10g of an ingredient and it doesn’t matter.

A lot of these green initiatives have a middle-class image which I suppose is originally associated with their ability to pay for organic clothes or food but would you say that’s not necessarily accurate?

I would. Lots of our young families are not middle-class.  There are plenty of cost-effective things available in our shop which anyone can afford.  But as I said before, some things that are locally sourced and high quality will be a bit more expensive.  As a small business, I can’t afford to buy in massive quantities and store goods like a supermarket can. But there are definitely ways still to save money in here. I think it’s about having the right mindset and a knowledge of cooking helps.  If you make meals from scratch, we can certainly help you save money.

Do you do anything to help people learn about cooking and using different ingredients?

We do recipes on social media and we’re planning to do more.

What have the awards done for you?

I think it’s nice to know that you’re recognised and doing a good thing.  If you ask anyone that’s started a business, it’s such hard work. I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it’s been – it just consumes everything so it’s all you can think about, even when you’re not here.  So the awards are nice.

We were already planning to introduce next year a system where you would buy your shopping online from local suppliers, and they would deliver it here for you to collect in one go.  All the items would be from local suppliers.

Can you tell me more about your suppliers and how you set them up?

First of all, I did lots of research.  We’ve got local rapeseed, local honey and wherever possible it’s local. If local isn’t possible, it’s from the UK.  If we can’t get something from the UK like olive oil, it’s organic. We use organic wholesalers if we can’t go direct to the producers.  We don’t do fresh produce just yet because we couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be waste.  The idea I mentioned earlier about ordering in advance for collection later, would solve that issue.

How do customers feel about bringing their own containers?

The people who bring their containers back regularly like doing that because they don’t like plastic. We do deliveries as well, but those people prefer to visit our shop with their containers and don’t find it inconvenient.  People who don’t shop here regularly would just come in and we’d give them a paper bag.

You opened after the pandemic so weren’t affected by that.  How do you think the cost of living crisis will affect you?

I think that people may go back to thinking that zero waste is an expensive option even though it’s not.  Like I said before, if you just buy what you need, you won’t waste food or money and that’s got to be a good thing when money is tight. It would be great if people would understand that.  And the more customers know about what they’re currently spending on certain ingredients, the better placed they are to see that we are the less expensive option.

At home, what are the things you do to be more sustainable? 

I drive a hybrid car but as we live in a rented house, I can’t fit solar panels to that.  I try to cook in bulk to use energy more efficiently.  One thing I do is worm farm.  I put all my food waste into the worm farm and it makes organic fertilizer.

What was the best bit of marketing you ever did?

When we first started, my friend did an animation for online promotion; first before we opened and then a few times after that because it’s great.  And we’ve continued with social media throughout though it’s quite time-consuming and it’s been a massive learning curve for me. I do enjoy it but it takes a lot of energy. When I first started, I thought really hard about it because I wanted it to be relevant but I’ve learned that people are happy with just everyday stuff.  Most recently I filmed myself making pumpkin soup to avoid waste at Halloween.

A Little Less Waste