Sustainability in focus as Coles ditches Little Shop plastic collectibles for good

Coles

Source: Reuters/Loren Elliott.

A move by Coles to ditch plastic collectables as part of its broader efforts to improve its environmental credentials shows how sustainability is fast becoming the new frontier for Australian retailers. 

The supermarket giant’s Little Shop collectable promotion was once so popular that shoppers would fight over the miniature plastic toys, and opportunistic sellers cashed in by selling complete sets on Gumtree

But following consumer backlash in 2019 — which was also directed at similar promotions from rival Woolworths — and feedback from its own customers, Coles has today announced it won’t offer the Little Shop and Stikeez plastic toy programs again. 

Instead, it says it will continue to offer reward programs that “inspire and offer value to customers”, including the Masterchef cookware promotions, which involve shoppers redeeming credits for useful household items, and the Little Treehouse book campaign, which feature miniature books made from FSC certified paper. 

Coles said in a statement the move is part of its broader bid to become “Australia’s most sustainable supermarket”.

These efforts will be stepped up a notch on the weekend with a new national advertising campaign, centred on the themes of “Together to Zero” and “Better Together”. 

The supermarket first unveiled the “Together to Zero” campaign in March when it committed to using 100% renewable electricity by 2025. The new campaign will focus on the retailer’s goal to achieve “zero waste, zero emissions and zero hunger”. 

The move away from plastic toy giveaways also follows a recent decision by the retailer to stop selling single-use plastic tableware. The supermarket said it has also removed 31 million soaker pads from meat trays this year and is working towards using 100% recycled materials in its packaging of bakery items in the 2022 financial year. 

Coles chief marketing officer Lisa Ronson said Coles has been listening to its customers who are increasingly concerned about reducing plastic packaging and the amount of waste that ends up in landfill. 

“In a recent survey of 9,000 customers, reducing waste to landfill and plastic packaging was the number one concern when it comes to environmental issues in retail, with 69% of those surveyed saying it was of high importance to them,” said Ronson in a statement. 

“We are on a journey and understand our responsibility to minimise our environmental footprint and to show leadership in protecting our planet and climate,” she said. 

Professor Gary Mortimer, a retail and marketing expert from Queensland University of Technology, says Coles’ move is “just one example of how retailers are focused in a race to be ‘green’”.

More SMEs are also focusing their efforts on sustainability, including through eliminating plastics from consumer’s homes, and there is a growing acknowledgement from brands of the value consumers now place on ethical consumption. 

It makes sense then to see larger retailers like Coles choosing to align their marketing activities with these bigger goals. 

“Rather than competing on price or convenience, a focus on promoting green credentials offers a way for supermarkets to differentiate themselves,” Mortimer explains. 

Coles Little Shop

Some of the plastic collectibles offered as part of Coles’ Little Shop promotion.

A values game

Mortimer says Coles’ decision to move away from the Little Shop style promotions is also ”very much about value alignment” with consumers.

“As shoppers become more conscious about environmental issues, they are more likely to support those retailers that are taking practical steps to reduce waste and implement innovative sustainability initiatives,” he says. 

On an issue like sustainability, independent brand counsel Michel Hogan says it is often telling to examine how a company’s actions line up with its words. 

A number of factors influence a brand, says Hogan, including what an organisation cares about, how it does things, and other external forces including the environment, customers and general social sentiments. 

This results in a “complex dance”, and often, big businesses “get caught on the wrong side of their stated core values”, she says. 

“Coles’ recent decision to ditch plastic toy promotions falls on the right side,” says Hogan, although she believes it would not have been an easy call to make. 

“Coles’ value of ‘customer obsession’ would have suggested keeping the super popular plastic toys, while ‘responsibility’ and its strategy to become ‘Australia’s most sustainable supermarket’ pointed in a different direction,” she explains. 

However, Hogan says Coles has been able to use this “tension” between competing values to develop a different approach with its The Little Treehouse book promotion, for example.

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