Reusable Goods: What Starbucks Can Learn From NYC’s Hottest Salad Startup

If you’re craving a salad in Manhattan, you increasingly have two options: boutique deli or Just Salad, a lunch chain that’s been sprouting new locations at a fertile pace. Last year they had 12 locations and this year they’re almost up to 30. One subtle reason for Just Salad’s success is its unique marketing approach, which takes the shape of a bright orange salad bowl.

Here’s how it works: Pay $1 and you’ll receive an attractive plastic bowl. Re-use the bowl during your next visit and your server will reward you with a free extra ingredient of your choice.

Big deal, right? Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have long offered discounts to customers who drag in their own canvas bags, and Starbucks has reusable cups. What’s the difference?

Why a Freebie is Better Than a Discount

The average discount for reusing a grocery bag or a coffee cup is tiny, in the nickel or dime range. Even if this discount was much larger, Just Salad’s freebie approach is the one to copy.

“The inner caveperson is the big spender you want to motivate”

We all have our inner accountant and our inner caveperson. Discounts trigger the inner accountant’s cost-benefit reflex. “Well, I’ll save 10% if I bring in my own salad bowl, but then I’ll have to wash it…my time is worth more than that and it’s only what, like 80 cents?” Freebies summon the inner caveperson: “ME WANT MOZZARELLA.” The inner caveperson is the big spender you want to motivate.

You Have to Get the Context Right

There’s a reason why reusable goods haven’t captured the public’s imagination: they don’t align with actual human behavior. Grocery shopping and coffee grabbing are both partially spontaneous activities. You might drop by the grocery store after work or crave a coffee after finishing a chore. But who wants to carry an extra item around just in case? Every missed opportunity weakens a potential habit.

Lunch is not a spontaneous activity. The vast majority of Just Salad’s customers go during their lunch break at work. They’ll keep the bowl at their desk and pick it up before they leave. The process is automatic, habit-forming and matches how humans behave.

Design Matters

Just Salad put a lot of energy into the design of their reusable bowl. It’s sturdy, has a distinctive UFO form and wouldn’t look out of place at the MOMA. While Starbucks and Target don’t care if you bring in your own personal cup or canvas bag, Just Salad demands you use theirs — and no one minds because it looks nice.

See someone walking down the hall clutching a Just Salad bowl? That’s a marketing trigger. Store yours in a drawer? Reach inside for your favorite stapler and that’s another trigger. My co-worker eats her morning cereal out of the bowl and another uses it to share M&Ms. Trigger, trigger.

Just Salad figured out how to create the culinary equivalent of Apple’s viral white earbuds!

Buy One For Next Time

If Just Salad gave out their salad bowls for free, they’d not only have to downgrade the quality, but a lot of people wouldn’t bother to use them. What’s free simply isn’t valued. By charging people $1, which is easy when you’re already charging them $10 for the rest of their meal, they’re making people personally invested in their use.

Here’s an interesting kicker: When you buy a Just Salad reusable bowl, you can’t use the bowl during that visit. It’s for “next time.” Talk about guaranteeing a next time!

Social Media Gateway

Companies have trouble convincing people to engage with their social media websites. Just Salad has no such problem because they lean on their secret weapon.

Every so often the company creates a limited edition VIP bowl that’s available in a unique color (this year’s is red). This rare prize lets you skip the line and offers even more free ingredients. How do you win one? Through creative social media engagement.

The other day I did a double take. Standing extra tall was a young man with a pink container. He bragged that I was the third person to ask him about it that day. He was a customer for life and the price was a paint job.

Wait, What About the Environment?

Observant readers will notice that I haven’t touched on the #1 reason why these reusable good programs exist in the first place: because they’re environmentally friendly. It’s win-win, the retailer can brag about their green initiatives and their eco-conscious customers feel better about shopping there. But Just Salad’s execution of this program is so powerful outside of environmental impact, that this benefit is just an extra, like a free sprinkling of bacon crumbs.

Applications Abound

While the most obvious applications for a reusable goods program come from food services: bowls, cups, lunch boxes, silverware, chopsticks and so on, you can apply these lessons to any other industry with a bit of ingenuity. Best Buy could sell an eye-catching cell phone case that extends the warranty of all purchases by two weeks. Simple, Viral, Contextual, and Compelling. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s lunch time and for whatever reason I’m craving a salad.

Adam Ghahramani is a product and marketing guy in New York City. While he doesn’t mind the occasional salad, he’s hoping that the owner of his favorite cheesesteak haunt will read this article and get some ideas. Make friends with Adam on Twitter.