Gem Retail Hotlist: Be Free Grocer flourishes in Palmerston North

  • News
  • August 21, 2019
  • Sarah Dunn
Gem Retail Hotlist: Be Free Grocer flourishes in Palmerston North

Retail isn’t an obvious next step for a couple who met during five years’ volunteering at a Malaysian wildlife sanctuary, but Bronwyn Green and David Phillips’ passion for animals has led them to tackle waste management from the shopfloor. Green shared insights about their plastic-free grocery store Be Free Grocer with The Register.

Be Free Grocer soft-launched just before Christmas in 2018, and was fully launched in January. Like Auckland’s GoodFor, it’s a one-stop shop for free-flowing pantry staples, personal care and household cleaning products. 

Green says she did research and tested the Palmerston North market before launching Be Free Grocer, but despite positive feedback, she was still pleasantly surprised when the store launched to an appreciative Manawatu customer base.

“The feedback was, ‘Yes, we’re keen,’ but you never really know until it’s launched,” she says. “I emotionally prepared myself for naysayers but the whole community has been nothing but supportive.”

She says Palmerston North is a great niche for businesses like Be Free Grocer as it’s big enough to support this kind of business, while also small enough to allow word of mouth to spread freely. Rents are favourable compared to Auckland, and a lively community of local SMEs supply products to stock its shelves.

“It’s been really cool to work with other local and nationwide business owners,” Green says.

Be Free Grocer represents the first time either Green or Phillips has started a business. Phillips assists with the shop but continues to work full time as a carpenter, and Green’s mother’s informal help has also been integral to the business’s early success. 

Green says Be Free Grocer has taken a lot of inspiration from the family’s personal lifestyle – they are vegan, try to avoid palm oil and minimise plastic waste. However, she’s aware that the business’s success will rely on sticking to the core focus, which is waste minimisation.

Be Free Grocer is intended to minimise plastic waste which harms animals in the environment by making plastic-free grocery shopping easy, and eventually it’s hoped it will generate money for conservation and animal welfare causes. Green says the team is currently working on “closing the gap” by dealing with any back-of-house waste in house, and her ultimate ambition for Be Free Grocer is to expand into a vertical supply chain, creating a circular economy.

Having worked in retail before, Green says she believes there’s plenty of scope for retailers to work together to minimise waste. As an example she offers Palmerston North company Haptics Bags, which makes bags out of discarded retail signage.

Green thinks the deliberately practical, down-to-earth side of Be Free Grocer’s message is what’s kept it safe from naysayers.

“It’s just us going on this journey ourselves and taking people with us.”

She’s been thrilled to see “so many more” businesses based on the plastic-free grocery model popping up around New Zealand in the six months since launching Be Free Grocer.

“It’s really cool to see that general trend sweeping the country,” Green says. “The more the merrier.”

Be Free Grocer is one of three finalists for 'Hottest provincial retailer: North Island' in the Gem Retail Hotlist's Individual Awards category. Voting is now open for the People's Choice award - click here to cast yours now!

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