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Q&A: RedBlack founder on reducing food waste in retail

After studying computer science at university and working as one of the first generation of Windows developers on projects including Computer Aided Software Engineering, Jane Tyler fell into bakery software by chance thinking the role would keep her busy for just a few months. Twenty years later she owns her own company, with its flagship product, Cybake bakery management ERP software, which is used by M&S in 560 of its bakeries. And she is also the vice chairman of the British Society of Baking to boot.

How can technology help to prevent food waste?

In recent years, many applications have been developed to tackle the re-distribution of food waste. Examples include FairShare, FoodCloud and Love Food Hate Waste. All of these are excellent approaches to ensure that surplus food does not go to waste.

However, we tackle the problem of food waste in a completely different way by reducing the over-production that leads to high levels of surplus food in the first place. In other words, we prevent waste rather than deal with waste that has already been produced.

These days, most food retailers have some element of in-store production. For example: baking bread, morning goods or pasties, assembling sandwiches or pizzas or producing meat products on a rotisserie.

This has created thousands of “mini-factories” producing food with very short shelf-life but with huge commercial pressure to ensure high availability by keeping the shelves well-stocked.

This is a recipe for disaster in terms of generating waste. Our cloud-based solution, Cybake Instore, is designed specifically to tackle this problem by using historical sales from EPOS systems to accurately forecast demand either for the full day or for individual trading periods during each day. Production plans are generated that are viewed by shop staff on a mobile device, thus guiding them through each day’s production waves.

Critically, the system can adjust the production plans using live sales data. The graph below shows this in action at a specific store; at 2pm, the system has reduced the production quantities of many of the products, because trading has not been as good as expected. Without this, waste would have been very high on these products.

Cybake Instore uses data from our clients’ EPOS tills to work out which products need to go in which shops and when. For the supermarket bakeries, it guides staff through the day’s production waves. This generally cuts waste by at least 20% and also has the benefit of increasing sales.

Are retailers really that bothered about food waste?

Retailers certainly are concerned about food waste and we are not finding it challenging at all to have these conversations. There is certainly some pressure from industry undertakings like the Courtauld Commitments, but frankly, the main driver is a commercial one, to reduce the cost to the business of overproduction and waste.

Interestingly, although there is obviously an interest in driving down overall waste levels, the main interest is in getting waste levels optimised by product. In other words, on key lines such as baguettes, retailers will target fairly high waste levels as they wish to ensure all-day availability, whereas on speciality lines, they would set much lower waste targets. It is a matter of controlling waste, getting the waste where you want it.

The retail industry has made big steps in recent years and, it has to be said, the amount of food waste caused by retailers is dwarfed by the mountain thrown away by households. However, a lack of a clear business case for reducing retail food waste was one big obstacle. Another, it seems to me, is a lack of confidence that real solutions can be found rather than those that just pay lip service to the issue.

Who are you working with, tell us a little bit about those partnerships?

Cybake software has always been developed in close partnership with our users: it’s what makes it so popular in our specific bakery sector. We work with around 150 craft bakers across the UK. All are well-known in their own local areas.

Our key blue chip account is with M&S which uses our Cybake Instore product in 560 instore bakeries across the UK to help control waste and increase sales. The partnership has been a very positive one. M&S very much appreciated working with a relatively small, agile company who could deliver solutions quickly with a minimum of fuss.

In return, RedBlack Software, which has a long history of working with SME craft bakers, learned a great deal about the detailed requirements of supermarket instore bakeries. We are currently talking to a number of major retailers in the UK and mainland Europe.

How can the retail and technology industries encourage more women to get involved?

From my perspective, women seem to be doing pretty well in retail, although it would be good to see more female CEOs of the market giants. The fact is a fair few of our pan-generational bakery customers were founded by indomitable businesswomen before women even had the vote. Very many British food technologists are women. But, as for computer technology, we definitely still need more female programmers!

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