The Rounds — an eco-friendly alternative to on-demand services — delivers, refills, and clears the empties of your household staples.
Sustainability practices have been on the rise in Philadelphia, with more and more eco-friendly brands popping up around the area. The pandemic has also catalyzed increased mindfulness of how our consumer choices impact the environment.
Now, a new Philly-based startup is making sure sustainability is at the forefront in every household. The Rounds is a no-waste delivery service that refills your staple home goods — from pantry items to cleaning and paper products — on a recurring basis for just $6 per month. They service several Philly neighborhoods (click here to see if you’re within their delivery range) and are an official partner of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. Oh, and they just expanded to D.C. last week!
We chatted with co-founder Alexander Torrey about why The Rounds got started, how it works, and why Philly is the perfect home for a zero-waste company.
Be Well Philly: How did you come up with the idea for The Rounds?
Torrey: The origin story of The Rounds stems from various parts of my background. I am a very mission-driven person, and my first job was as an analyst for the CIA. The CIA has a tremendous sense of mission, and it left me with a big impression that a group of talented humans who are aligned around a common goal can be unstoppable. That is also the definition of a start up — you’re conceptualizing and building a future of what could be around a shared vision.
The other driving factor behind The Rounds is my experience as a consumer, especially one who has lived in cities — in high-rise apartments without a car, at that. I’ve come to realize that obtaining the stuff I use on a daily basis from an actual store can be a huge hassle, so I (like many others) order it online. One time I ran out of soap, so I ordered it, but it arrived in this massive box. It got me wondering why I had this huge box and a bunch of packaging in my apartment, all for a small bottle of hand soap that I’d eventually throw away just like the previous one. Then I started thinking about all the other units in my apartment building and the units in surrounding buildings, and realized just how much unnecessary material is getting delivered and also going to waste. Why couldn’t my soap dispenser just be refilled with more soap, rather than replaced with an entirely new bottle?
As a previous high-rise tenant, I totally get that. Our trash room was always piled. And Philly’s trash situation has been pretty rough this past year.
Totally. I became kind of obsessed with figuring out a better way to get the items I need and send back the stuff I don’t without any of it going to waste. It’s like this: I don’t want better hand soap, I want a better way to get my hand soap — a method that is more convenient, but also sustainable.
I started working on the concept in early 2019, and then brought a more developed idea with me to graduate school at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The first phase of the prototype involved me biking around Philly to test out the service with a small group of customers. Then in early 2020, I onboarded Byungwoo “BK” Ko — one of my Wharton classmates who used to work on operations and strategy for Uber — as co-founder. We launched a larger-scale pilot of the business, which did exceptionally well and led to what The Rounds is today.
So it’s like the old milkman model.
Exactly. It’s why we originally named the company Mlkmn. We took that inspiration to create a two-way supply chain. So instead of something going from point A to point B only, it goes from point A to point B, is picked up by us and brought back to point A. Then we start the process all over again.
Why did you rebrand as The Rounds?
We wanted a brand that was more representative of our greater vision of making everyday sustainable choices effortless. The Rounds made better sense because we operate on a circular economy — a kind of enclosed loop that just continues. We literally make “the rounds” every week with all the stuff you need, delivering and refilling.
How does it work exactly?
The Rounds is founded on the idea that everyone is looking to use their time as efficiently as possible. So we’re not just about getting products easily, but managing household inventory for our customers. Our auto-pilot technology — our algorithm that starts to learn your item demands over time and predicts your usage — takes care of what, when, and how much you need. That way, we’re able to restock exactly what you need before you run out, so you don’t have to worry about remembering.
To start the process, you go to our website and begin a quick on-boarding process, where we ask you some simple questions to help our algorithm learn your consumer behaviors. You’ll then pick from a list of about 100 curated household essentials like pantry, cleaning, paper, personal care, and baby items. Then you’ll build your autopilot by telling us what you want The Rounds to manage for you. We then do everything else! You’ll get assigned a refill day (the same day every week), so you know exactly when your items are going to be delivered, restocked, and cleared of empties.
Where do you source the products from?
We do a lot of curation to make sure customers are getting high-quality products. We go directly to the manufacturers who are making brands that are biodegradable, organic, and top-notch. We source right from them — no middleman in between — and we sell them under The Rounds brand. It’s similar to what Trader Joe’s does.
Where is The Rounds based?
We operate out of what we call neighborhood refillment centers (NRCs). They’re basically super small distribution spaces that are strategically located and allow us to leave nano-footprints. From the NRCs, we walk or bike everything to customers, making The Rounds a completely carbon emission-free service. At the moment, our only Philly NRC is located, ironically, in the former package room of the Rittenhouse Claridge apartment building. We are planning to open more NRCs throughout the city in the very near future to be able to fulfill the demand for the service.
What Philly neighborhoods do you service?
Essentially, we cover South Philly all the way up through Center City to Fishtown, as well as into Brewerytown and West Philly.
What else makes The Rounds different from other delivery services?
Because our technology predicts what essentials you use and when you use them, a lot of the volatility that exists for on-demand delivery companies, especially when there’s surges for specific products. We have visibility into future demand, which allows us to plan out our supply chain much further in advance. This is also a reason that makes us a strong partner for neighborhood brands because we’re able to commit a firm number of orders for those local small businesses.
What have you found to be some of the biggest challenges to a service like this?
We’re finding that there’s a kind of “too good to be true” story circulating around sustainable and no-waste services. The fact is, it isn’t! We’ve just been told for so long that sustainability cannot be convenient and vice versa. Sustainable products also aren’t always more expensive. We’re able to deliver products that are good value — we’ve found that the products we source are 30 to 40-percent less than retail price. So really, the biggest hurdle right now is getting people to give this kind of service a shot.
Why do you believe a service like The Rounds is needed right now?
Sustainability is no longer a fringe thing. Modern consumers really do care about making sustainable, eco-friendly choices. I fundamentally believe we’ll look back on this time and think it was weird for everyone to get multiple boxes delivered to their doors with the same kind of staple products. That box guilt just doesn’t make sense to me and so many others. People right now are looking for an alternative to be more sustainable without having to sacrifice convenience, which makes The Rounds extremely relevant.
Also, we’re relevant from a public policy perspective. Many major cities in the United States, including Philly, have signed some kind of zero-waste pledge, which shows cities are committed to send nothing to landfills or incinerators. That’s going to require different supply chain behavior, like movement away from the one-way supply chain and toward a two-way, zero-waste approach. This is where The Rounds comes in, and we hope to help make these changes successful in Philly and beyond.