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The green milkman model
The Wally Shop is delivering groceries via a business model built on sustainability and low-impact practices.
It started with almond milk.
Tamara Lim was making her own, having found out that most on the market only contain two fragments of the nut. Wouldn’t it be cool, she thought, if someone created a brand with more elements? It would be more expensive, but costs could be offset through reusable packaging.
The recent college grad couldn’t stop thinking about packaging because it was her job to do so. At the time, Lim lived in Seattle and worked for Amazon, where she managed the mega-corporation’s packaging processes. Through her work she noticed a trend across sects of the business: consumers began demanding eco-friendly packaging, such as thinner, recyclable cardboard.
For a retailer shipping millions of products around the world each day, product supply can be inconsistent. Lim’s job was to solve that problem for vendors; to facilitate transitions as they reconsidered packaging products that she and the customer knew were contributing, overall, to a wide-spread global waste crisis — “a problem that impacts every single person on this planet,” she tells Supermaker.
Working for a global tech giant—one that is able to do “what we would have thought was impossible, literally shipping anything in this world within two days to you at the click of a button,” Lim says—offered much insight.
“I'd found myself in this position where I saw that this is how the world is changing. I saw that there are serious infrastructure-level issues with meeting that demand. And I was also seeing the consequences of [the consistent creation of waste],” Lim says.
Obsessed with problem-solving, in 2017, Lim left Amazon to start her own company. She switched coasts, selecting New York as the base for her new project because it ranks highest among all states for “amount of trash generation per square footage,” she says. Lim knew little beyond her desired global scale of impact.
Her first idea was to incentivize recycling, a system plagued by a lack of adoption. So, with a team, Lim created an app that helped the user easily identify “which items go in which bins” and incentivized the system. But in 2018, when China announced it would no longer accept recyclables, the global recycling market crashed. The potential for Lim’s project to succeed met a similar fate. She went back to the drawing board and built what would become Wally Shop: same problem, different execution.
She considered the process of the Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. “Reuse” struck Lim as an accessible point of entry, and she began to explore an execution standpoint. Lim says the incentives for participating in waste-free shopping through the service are inherent, customers retain convenience through online stores. “It’s the beauty of the fact that you can, with a click of a button, have it at your doorstep, enjoy it, and then put it right back,” she says. “You're not really having to ask consumers to change a lot because they're so used to buying things online.” No behavioral shift required
Next came economic perspective, where it also made sense: “If you think back to the milkmen days, the reason why we used to reuse bottles was because of economical reasons,” Lim says. With grocery stores especially daunting to the eco-conscious shopper, a waste-free food delivery service began to make sense.
The same year her app failed, the Wally Shop began serving Brooklyn. Pairing with local purveyors like Fort Greene’s Green Grape, the service offered bulk food—a selection of organic coffees, produce, grains, home goods, personal care products—delivered by bike messengers in custom jumpsuits. Packaging included glass jars and cloth bags, which a user could return at their front door with the arrival of their next delivery.
The customer’s experience centers around their choice, Lim says, and she’s retained that user-forward focus as the Wally Shop has scaled without advertising. Exposure has come from happy clientele and media coverage. She tries to worry not about output, competitor tactics, or degree of exposure. The team of four focuses its energy instead on its indispensable pillars—convenience, value, selection, and sustainability.
“We very much, day in, day out, subscribe to the philosophy. We believe by creating value in those four pillars, that everything will naturally come. It'll be the experience that we want it to be,” Lim says.
Wally Shop served Brooklyn by bike until late 2019, when Lim and her team made a major shift in their business model, with plans to scale up to nationwide delivery and build a more robust “circular marketplace." This, of course, would require a stocked inventory and consistent supply, which the business hadn’t yet established. And they needed a lot of money to make it happen.
Which is why, in December of 2019, Wally Shop announced the change and setup a Kickstarter, which received over $50,000 in donations from hundreds of backers. The new model offers delivery within the continental United States, made possible still through reusable packaging and shipping products. Bike messengers will be replaced by reusable totes to be exchanged between customers and the Wally inventory warehouse.
A new website was launched in February and a nationwide soft launch on March 6 made nationwide shipping available to the first 1,000 people who had signed up in the weeks prior. But by the end of that month, the COVID-19 pandemic made groceries less accessible to shoppers. Wally Shop decided to shoulder on, pivot yet again, and go public ahead of schedule, waiving shipping fees for health care staff, emergency services and seniors above the age of 65. They’re also donating $1 per order to Feeding America through April 30.
“We expect to go out of stock and be challenged operationally. That’s ok—right now, it’s more important than ever that as many people as possible have safe access to their necessities,” the company said in a press release.
Now fully open fully to the public, Wally Shop users can sort by diet to find products free from gluten, peanuts, dairy, or tree nuts, or those that are kosher or organic. It takes twelve jars to fully minimize your carbon footprint, which Wally tracks for users on-site.
The shop’s new supply includes suppliers like Frontier Coop, Edison, and Valued Naturals who have been brought into the fold to bolster selection and volume, Lim says, and customers are invited to suggest other retailers to the shop to expand choice for their online orders. Each return requires a $5.99 round-trip delivery fee as a deposit on the reusable tote, which gets returned to the customer upon return, “meaning more money saved.” UPS or FedEx deliver the order and scheduled pickups can also be arranged.
As Wally Shop points out on its fundraiser page, with each disposable purchase, you’re already paying for trash. Their goods come at bulk prices without waste creation “at Trader Joe’s prices.”
While planning for the shift, Lim struggled with the fact that adding shipping complicates a model built on sustainability and low-impact practices. But, after consulting with trusted experts in the space and hearing user feedback, she feels at peace with the decision. “We need to be sizable enough to be taken seriously to start to drive this meaningful change,” she says. Especially because the future she sees is one where reusable options are readily available for anything that currently comes in disposable packaging. And that, Lim says, starts with “giving people the choice.”