Start Your Own Refill Shop...

We opened Re-Up Refills in April 2020. In the three plus years since then, we have been happy to see similar zero waste shops becoming more and more popular. Every new refill shop helps more and more people and communities get groceries without all the packaging waste, and also broadens the visibility of the refill movement. So... if you're thinking of starting a refill shop, here are a few tips from our own experience.

Scouting
  • Go visit other zero-waste and refill shops. This is a great way to get a feel for what it’s like to operate a store.
  • Bonus points if you can chat with the people who work there or owners (if you aren’t trying to set up your store right around the corner from them, they will likely be happy to share about their experience).
  • Also, try to use the store like a regular customer — take notes on what works well and what doesn’t.
Location
  • Next, you will want to think about the location for your store.
  • Secure a location that doesn't already have a refill shop, again the goal is to grow the movement and not undercut current operators already getting folks refills. So, give those other refill shops some space to grow!
  • Ideally, choose a spot that is easily accessible for your core customer base and has high foot traffic, but doesn’t kill you on rent while you’re still getting your business up and running.
  • Public transit access, bike and car parking are also important. The more and more your customers refill, the heavier and heavier it gets! Having parking near by is helpful for your customers, making it easier to shop!
  • In Re-Up’s first year, we worked out of a few modified shipping containers at O2 Artisans Aggregate (O2AA), an eco-industrial park in West Oakland. Foot traffic was pretty much non-existent. But rent was as cheap as we could find, at $200 per month, on a month-to-month basis. This gave us time and a runway to figure out our processes, so that we could eventually feel confident about taking the plunge and signing a three year lease in Rockridge, Oakland — an area with much better foot traffic, but at the cost of $3,500 per month plus utilities.
  • If you can’t find a low-rent situation, you could also consider test-running the market in other ways. For example... by offering a pop-up refilling station, perhaps at a farmer’s market, or in collaboration with another eco-friendly business, like a natural foods store, or even a yoga studio. In the early days, Re-Up outfitted an electric cargo bike as a filling station that let us do pop-ups at like minded businesses around Berkeley and Oakland.
Products To Offer
  • What products do you want to offer at your shop? For Re-Up, we thought of all the things we usually buy at grocery stores — everything from rice to sunscreen to toothpaste. As we have been bulk buyers ourselves for well over a decade, we had a strong grasp of what we wanted to carry.
  • Also, try to figure what your area has the biggest need for... what products are difficult to find locally without packaging waste? At Re-Up, our most popular products tend to be in the cleaning section — liquid laundry detergent, dish soap, and hand soap.
  • You will probably also want some of the products that we call 'Zero-Waste' items. These are the products that don’t need to get refilled — think compostable brushes, sponges, toothbrushes, etc. — but still offer a way to reduce plastic waste in the home. These products are by far and away the easiest to receive, stock, and sell. They don’t require any weighing, don’t have any shelf life, and are easy for customers to grab. While Re-Up doesn’t want to encourage mindless consumerism, we do think compostable products (like floss or sponges) are better than ones made with plastic.
Supplier Partnerships
  • Once you have a product list going, you will need to make sure you can actually purchase the product.
  • To do that, you’re going to need to set up relationships with wholesale suppliers that align with your values.
  • You might think this is straightforward — they need to sell their product and you want to buy it. Strangely, however, it can often be difficult to give companies your money...
    • First, you’ll have to research suppliers that...
      • Have the quality of product you want.
      • Are willing to supply it in bulk.
      • Ideally offer circular supply. 'Circular' means the supplier takes back their empty containers once you sell all the product. The supplier then washes and refills these containers. This way, there isn’t any waste on the supply side. Unfortunately, there are not many of these suppliers (there need to be more). At Re-Up, we have spent many hours finding the ones that do exist, and have been pushing (with some success) others to start offering bulk / circular options. * Exciting News * Re-Up is now offering circular soaps along the West Coast for many products, including: liquid laundry detergent, dish soap, and hand soap, as well as a variety of other zero-waste items.
    • Second, you’ll need to provide the suppliers with your Reseller’s Permit (oh yeah, you gotta get one of those * ).
    • Finally, you can place your order! Often, however, your order will need to meet a certain minimum threshold — a minimum quantity of product or a minimum total price for the order. Unfortunately, this minimum is often far more than you want to spend when you’re just starting out. We have had some success in asking for an exception for our first order, but not everyone will budge. So, be sure to order products you are confident in — ideally, products that you use and like yourself.
    • Also... always get product samples to test!
Gotten through all that? Congratulations! You’re well on your way to creating a business that makes a positive impact on the environment and your community.

Are there more things to consider? Oh yes, there are more. A whole lot more...

If you want to hear about the other areas of interest we have spent weeks / months / years fumbling through, add a comment or subscribe to our blog. Upcoming posts could cover... what type of business entity to select, major operating documents for business partnerships, scale selection, POS system selection, inventory management tools, customer experience, tare stations, e-commerce versus brick-and-mortar, wash and delivery services, and whatever else you’re interested in that we’ve learned about : )

See You At The Shop,
The Re-Up Refills Team : )

* Yep, you’re gonna need to get a Reseller’s Permit. You should look online to figure out the correct instructions for your specific location, but, in short, here is what we did...
  • Decide how your business will be organized — sole proprietorship vs. LLC vs. S-Corp vs. Workers Co-operative vs. other? File any appropriate papers with the state. We started as a sole proprietorship to keep it simple in the beginning, but quickly switched to an LLC, and are now filing as an S-Corp.
  • Get a bank account under your business name (likely will need to file a DBA-"doing business as"for this and get a business license with your city).
  • Get a Seller’s Permit. In California, you can do this through the CDTFA website.
  • If necessary, register for a tax certificate in the city you operate in.
  • Then you can apply for a Reseller’s Permit (again, in California, this happens through the CDTFA website).
  • Wait for approval, which can take weeks.

4 comments

  • I am considering the possibility of opening a refill shop in my east bay neighborhood. Would it be possible for you to give me a ballpark figure of how much money it would take to get it started, just so that I can see if it’s even a reachable plan for me? I understand the rent cost for a location will vary, so my question is more in terms of permits/license/paperwork, purchasing product, display fixtures, that sort of thing…
    Thank you for the information you provide in your blog, and for any more details you may be able to offer me.

    Carmen
  • Looking for an idea to bring more people downtown. Recently bought 3 store fronts in our rural neighborhood. We have had some success (daycare and thrift store), but our 1 store continues to be resolving (clothing store, resale of returns, and vape shop).. Is there any way to buy products in conglomeration with others to make buying in bulk easier and resolving. Or a franchise (cheap) that can help a start up.

    Todd
  • Your article was very helpful and inspiring! Thank you for sharing all of this information. I am honestly interested in every single topic you listed as possible upcoming posts! :)

    Amy
  • Thank you for sharing your hard-won business start-up knowledge! Now I can dream in fine detail and not just broad strokes :) I haven’t visited the shop yet, but am planning my grocery list for a visit sometime soon.

    Amber

Leave a comment