In celebration of World Refill Day, we spoke to Kirsty about her experience of opening and running her Leeds-based zero-waste shop, The Refilling Station.
Please tell us a little about your business.
I was working in marketing and was pretty unhappy. It didn’t work with having 2 young kids and my partner working away a lot. A mental health crisis made me re-think my life and, when the chance to take redundancy arose, I left.
Soon after, I took part in a plastic-free TV piece for the BBC and, before I knew it, Look North were going through my cupboards, which was a bit embarrassing! As part of that piece, we went to an independent shop in Leeds called ‘Out of This World’ to refill our washing up liquid. It was at that point I realised there was a gap in the market. I remember as a kid there were plenty of shops with big bins and scoops for general food, washing powder and sweets, but they seemed to have slowly died out.
By November 2018 I had a market stall in Chapel Allerton. I did that for about 4 months, which was a challenge, both due to the British weather and because I had a broken foot at the time! When this shop came up in March I went for it. I had no stock so I literally set up my entire market stall on a little table at the front of the shop.
What are you most proud of about your business and why?
I was a new business. Then COVID hit. And now the cost-of-living crisis, so I don’t actually know what ‘normal’ looks like, but we’re still here and I’m so proud of that – We’ve defied expectations! We didn’t make money in the first year but since then we’ve built a community of local, loyal shoppers and established ourselves. 4 years later and we’re still going strong, so we must be doing something right!
What’s your local area and high street like?
Chapel Allerton is a fairly affluent area. We have a really mixed demographic with customers of all ages, but they have a few things in common; they are fed up of plastic and they care about their local high street and independent shopping. They really support independent shops around here and there’s lots of choice, which means they can more easily avoid the mainstream supermarkets. My business complements the other independents around here and we all refer customers to each other, which is lovely. Our customers tell their friends and family too, so we rarely need to do any paid advertising. Despite all the positivity, we could always do with more customers to balance out the quiet times though.
What sets your store apart from others in the area?
The only thing that sets us apart is business type. Around here we all fit in together as part of a larger, independent retail community. All the shops are in WhatsApp group where we share information, look out for one another and arrange meet-ups, and give each other a heads up when there’s a traffic warden about! We really do work together. When the book shop down the road hosts a famous author event, for example, everyone gets a goody bag which includes flyers and treats from other local shops.
How are you and your other local independent high street retailers fairing?
It’s hard to say as people don’t always want to be honest in case it puts people off. I’m always honest with people who ask how business is. Our sales peaked over COVID and we had to adapt the way we worked, which meant our operational costs were higher than usual. It’s totally normal that everyone has struggled at times. Who knows what is around the corner? Other shops like mine are really struggling. I know of three refill shops in Leeds who have closed, or are about to.
What kind of products can we buy in your shop?
We’re an eco-grocery shop selling loose natural foods, household refills, bath and body care, and more. We use local wholesalers like Suma to set us apart from the supermarkets and we don’t sell online, so it’s really important that we have a good range in the shop. We sell canned and jarred products like baked beans, miso paste and chopped tomatoes too.
Is there anything else you’d like our audience to know about The Refilling station?
A lot of people think shopping somewhere like this would be more expensive, but buying the quantities you need can save money as well as reducing waste. We also have people who come in and buy less often but in larger quantities with a bulk discount. Don’t be scared to ask for something, or just pop in for a chat!
Do you have any criteria to ensure that your products are sourced sustainably or to determine their suitability for your store?
I use Suma who do this on my behalf. When it comes to other smaller, independent businesses, it depends. Mostly I speak to the supplier directly, or I do my own research. Nowadays I am rarely adding new suppliers because I’m well stocked and stick to the ones I trust and that sell well.
What measures do you take to reduce waste in your store or make it more environmentally friendly?
We use local suppliers and buy in larger quantities. If we get anything in plastic we reuse the bag as a general waste bin liner. Our liquid refill containers are refilled by the supplier. We also use the ‘too good to go’ app for food that we want to clear. This means we still get paid a little but, more importantly, reduces waste.
Can you share any popular or standout refill/ plastic-free products that your store offers?
Are there any upcoming events or promotions your store has planned, for World Refill Day or otherwise?
I’m pretty rubbish with promotion, but I’ll be sharing and doing social media posts and highlighting to prospective customers that even just refilling one bottle helps! Largely the general public can be apathetic to all these ‘days’! There are so many and are becoming increasingly commercial.