Short History Of The (Packaging-Free) Supermarket

grocery shop → supermarket → bring your own container shop

The recently opened packaging-free shops often combine elements of 1) the organic supermarket, 2) the bulk shop, and 3) the traditional grocery shop. How did all this come together?

Before 1915: over-the-counter grocery shops were common, in which the shop clerks brought (suggested) goods from shelves or storage towards the customers.

After 1915: grocery shops turned into self-service grocery shops, allowing customers to pick up items by themselves. The first self-service grocery shop was Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, United States.

In 1937: A Piggly Wiggly spin-off, called Keedoozle, was created as a prototype for a semi-automated grocery shop. Customers were given a paper tape, in which they could punch holes to order products displayed behind glass windows. At the cashier operated check-out, the punched tape was used to A) mechanically calculate the total price and B) send the order to a manually operated supply room, from which the products were delivered via a conveyor belt. Keedoozle failed because the mechanisms weren’t efficient enough.

Late 1950s: the American supermarket model, a bigger version of the self-service grocery shop, was brought to Europe by for example Delhaize (Belgium) and Tesco (UK).

Around 1970health food stores (organic/health-focused grocery shops) gained in popularity. In the Netherlands these were known as natuurwinkels (nature shops).

In 1974, the barcode and the barcode scanner were first introduced in a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, United States (source: The National Museum of American History).

Early 1980s: the first organic supermarkets were opened, such as Whole Foods (USA).

Also in the 1980s, self-service bulk shopping was (re)introduced, by for example Bulk Barn (Canada).

In 1995: the Dutch supermarket giant Albert Heijn and science institute TNO conducted self-scanning / self-checkout experiments with handheld scanners (source: Distrifood). Safeway (Wales, UK) followed shortly thereafter.


Between 2005 and 2014 the retail market of organic food in the EU doubled from €11.1 billion to €24 billion (source: Organic in Europe, 2016). In 2014, the average EU consumer spent around €47 on organic food. The United States has the world’s largest organic food market, which has been growing for many years. Sales grew 11% between 2014 and 2015,  to $43.3 billion (source: Organic Trade Association, 2016).


In 2007: The concept of a packaging-free shop, as an alternative to the supermarket, started to develop. The zero-waste and bring-your-own-container ideas lifted off into popularity. In these shops, food (and non-food) could be tapped from dispensers, or scooped from bulk bins. Pioneers of this movement were Unpackaged  (London, UK, 2007) and the Italian franchises Negozio Leggero (2009) and Effecorta (2009).

In 2014, zero-waste grocery shopping blew up in the popular media when Original Unverpackt (Berlin) launched its succesful crowdfunding campaign. Unverpackt Kiel opened in February of 2014 as Germany’s first packaging-free shop.

Also in 2014, some (European) organic grocery shops evolved into bigger organic supermarkets, look at for example the EkoPlaza franchise (Netherlands, since 2010).

In 2015 it became possible to scan articles using a smartphone app at some Albert Heijn (Netherlands) supermarkets. Between 2008 and 2016, the worldwide amount of  self-checkout devices grew from 92,600 to 468,500. (Sources: Statistic Brain [2016], LPM Insider [2006], Wikipedia).

September 2016,  Bulk Barn (Canada) started the “Reusable Container Program” in a selection of stores, as a pilot  to investigate the safety of letting customers use their own containers (sources: [2016], Bulkbarn [2016]).

December 2016, Amazon opened the first test version of Amazon Go, an automatic check-out supermarket. Customers check-in using a smartphone. When they take a product from a rack, or place it back into the rack, the smartphone’s wireless NFC connection registers this. When leaving the shop, the customer’s bill is paid automatically through electronic banking. A supermarket for the internet of things?

February 24th, 2016Bulk Barn (Canada) expands its “Reusable Container Program” to all of its stores (200+) across Canada.


(…more to come…)



Keedoozle customers in the 1930s.
The lady is looking at products on display behind glass.
The gentleman is making an order by punching holes in his tape.
[source: Wikipedia – Keedoozle]


Some terms
English: packaging-free, package-free, unpackaged, bulk, zero-waste
French: vrac (bulk), zéro déchet / zero gaspillage (zero waste)
Italian: alla spina (on tap), sfusa (bulk)
Spanish: a granel (bulk, literally: per grain), cero desperdicio (zero waste) 
German: unverpackt (unpackaged, packaging-free)
Dutch: verpakkingsvrij (packaging-free), verpakkingsarm (reduced packaging)


  1. Thank you for this, thank you for doing all of this! I love your site and your work is so valuable!

    • bepakt

      May 22, 2017 at 14:30

      I’m happy it’s appreciated. Working hard on expanding the site :). Best, Rutger

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