Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has launched its first ‘Smart Fill’ machine, an in-store vending model for its home care products with the aim to reuse, reduce and recycle plastic. Currently deployed in select Asian markets, this initiative offers consumers an option to reuse their plastic bottles by refilling products from HUL’s brands like Surf Excel, Comfort and Vim through the smart refillery. Initiatives like the refillery are part of Unilever's global effort to build sustainable, 'purposeful' brands.
Speaking about the initiative in a conversation with Storyboard, Prabha Narasimhan, executive director (Home Care) for Hindustan Unilever and Vice President (Home Care) for Unilever South Asia, says, “We did an interesting piece of research on this and what we found is that 20 percent of the Indian consumers are already eco-warriors, these are the lead-edge consumers who want to understand what is happening in the environment and want to make a positive contribution. In our pilot we saw that they are looking for avenues in which they are keen to contribute. Our first port will be these consumers.”
To access products from the Smart Fill machine, consumers can either use their old empty bottles or purchase a Smart Fill bottle from the store at a nominal price. As an incentive, consumers are being offered INR 30 off on the MRP or effective price at the store if they get their own bottle and Rs 15 off to those who purchase the Smart Fill bottle. The flagship brands that consumers can avail these benefits on include Surf Excel, Comfort and Vim gel.
The company aims to use learnings from this pilot project to create a scalable refill business model in partnership with prominent retailers and modern trade outlets.
Speaking about how to scale the model, keeping in mind COVID restrictions, Narsimhan says “Our idea is to get it out at a lot of touch points. We will do it at a particular time, as the country unlocks and more consumers get out of home over a period of time.”
The BYOB Challenge
But there are other challenges too. “The first is the idea of consumer behaviour - which is to encourage consumers to bring their own bottles, because that’s where it works the best. The second challenge that we have is that of the business model which is making sure that it works in a way so that it is a win-win for everybody.”
Narasimhan is not overly concerned about pandemic-induced comsumer behaviour change. Sure visits to the stores have reduced, people are used to shopping online for everything from salt to shoes, but, Narasimhan says, the behaviour of going to the modern trade store is not going to go away. She adds, “We need to make sure that at the store, safety is 100 percent." As an additional safety measure, the refill bottles are UV treated.
HUL's riding on a consumer-centric approach - 'Reuse, Refill and Reward’ to build mass public awareness that changes the way plastic is viewed, used and managed.