Virus crisis and food packaging

The real effects on the packaging industry from the present virus crisis is hard to comprehend. But regarding food packaging in the short to medium term we will see online grocery shopping grow, more focus on hygiene and price without losing the grip of sustainable solutions.

The virus has arrived and not very much is what it should be. Uncertainty and close to standstill are for many the situation and the long-term consequences are hard to fathom. Likely short-term results appear to be a severe downturn in the overall economy with double digit declines of GDP’s and a sharp increase of unemployment. Some of the hardest hit industries, so far, seem to be the hotel/restaurant industry, the travel/event industries and retail.

When it comes to retail this is not a general decline, the grocery retailing is in a much better position than other in that industry. Right now, people are obviously staying put, cooking and eating at home and are using the internet for socializing. Going out is rarely an option and food and beverages are bought from stores rather than restaurants. Also, pharmacies are open for business selling medicines as well as personal care products.

Where is this possibly going then?

On the consumer side the pandemic is speeding up adoption of trending behaviors like remote working but also online grocery shopping. And in the retail industry the situation is possibly increasing demand for retail technologies. The effects of this pandemic for the retail industry could include an increased e-commerce business and cashier free self-checkouts and more.

And for food packaging?

Demand for food packaging as such will be up as people are cooking and eating more at home. Now when many restaurants and food-service outlets are closed this is obvious, but as the crisis creates new behavior patterns some of them will stay, like cooking. Also after the euphoria when things get a bit more normal. There might also be increased interest for stockpiling of essentials. A new normal can very well be to have more than a few days of preserved food in the larder. This also goes for personal care and healthcare products.

Grocery e-commerce has so far been developing at very different paces in Europe. The UK is still in the lead according to an article in Forbes, followed by the Czech Rep. and Estonia. As a result of the virus pandemic the habit of ordering online and receiving, or picking up, your shopping is fast developing and will get a boost from the extreme situation we now are experiencing. This is a clear, and unpredicted, step in consumer acceptance and adoption of the channel. A habit that most likely will stay also when we are back to a more normal world. This needs to be supported by new and better packaging solutions. This is a field where there still is room but new and creative packaging solutions are developed and innovative delivery methods are introduced.

I don’t think that sustainability will go away because of the shifted focus. The consumer demand is too strong, and the concept of sustainable packaging solutions has gotten so ingrained in product and company positioning. Demand might temporary go down but if so, it will surely rapidly bounce back. It could however mean a changed view on initiatives such as not using one-way cups, introduced at certain coffee chains. People are also probably less interested in the packaging-free shops where you fill loose product in a bag of your own.

Sustainability is also related to the expected increase in general focus on health and demand for food hygiene. Packaging might even become appreciated by the consumers. It is visibly protecting and guaranteeing the freshness of the product. This could also be supporting the introduction of track and trace systems to a broader use. Blockchain technology is available, among other solutions, and is implemented as a useful tool in the distribution chain. This crisis could be a catalyst for increased use of technology for tracking and to verify product origin and what it has experienced before consumption. An increased cost for this service is hard to get around and can, in particular now, be a disadvantage.

It will take a while for the world to get back on track and increased unemployment and uncertain employments will make the average consumer more price sensitive than usual. As a result comes as a shift towards consumers demanding more value-products and private labels will have a field day if they play the cards right. Converters and others in the packaging industry will not be spared the general requirements for lower prices.

The future is right now not bright, but it is not a dark abyss either. We will have to adopt and be as agile as we can to survive and succeed also in the new tomorrow.

E-commerce and logistics – room for new concepts!

E-commerce will continue to grow, and that at the expense of traditional retailing. Online shopping will soon be the norm for shopping. The supply chain needs to adjust to this.

One man’s convenience is another man’s stress
One of the consequences of us shopping from home, or on-the-go using the phone, is a stressed logistics system. The result is visible, congested traffic and overloaded bottle necks.
The logistic system supporting online shopping can be divided in two steps. The first leg is from producer to a Customer Fulfillment Centre or CFC. The second is from the CFC to consumer. This is a very different supply chain from the traditional and we have all noticed the growing number of lorries on the roads. New innovative delivery methods are invented and tried out. Robots, drones and electrical vehicles of all kinds, self-driving and not. These solutions are mainly focused on the last mile delivery, that is from the customer fulfilment centre (CFC) to the consumer. This “last mile” transport can be organised in various ways, it can be home deliveries or to a pack-station at offices, supermarkets or in train stations.

Remarkable last mile solutions

Drones
Amazon introduced the concept of drone deliveries in 2016 and shared a few months ago a project update. They are still developing the concept and now showed us an increasingly sophisticated flying vehicle capable to deliver up to 90% of the packages they are delivering today. And safely too.
Wings has a similar solution but with a different spin.  They offer the same service, drone deliveries, but instead they link consumers to a range of local stores. An order is placed, and the drone picks up goods from the specified shop and delivers, all the way home. On trial in Australia, Finland and in the US.

Robots
Some drones are instead found moving around on the ground. In the UK, Tesco has started to deliver groceries using robots. A pilot test is located to Milton Keynes where Tesco is working with Estonian based robotics company Starship Technologies. A low 6-wheeled cart carries parcels, meals and groceries delivering to homes within a 3 km radius.
In the US Kiwibot is doing very much the same, home deliveries using robots, but in this case the 4-wheeled carts are bringing food from local restaurants. Also this is a concept in the building but it is inspiring to see all the creativity coming out to meet the demand for fast home deliveries.

The first leg of the supply chain
The above are solutions for shorter distances, the second leg of the supply chain. To get the goods from the producer to the CFCs lorries, train and boats are used, creating traffic overflow. That is until now. Until we heard of Magway.

British Magway has come up with the idea of building a network of pipes around the country. This planned grid of tubes, with a diameter of 90 cm, is supposed to carry goods, beneath and above ground. Instead of using trucks on the road, cargo will be sent around in pods in these tubes fitted with rails and powered by magnetism. An electric current will run through a track in the pipe, creating a magnetic wave that will drive the packed pods at speeds of 80 km/h.

Magway is an example of sustainable new thinking for a new era where consumers want their goods and that immediately. The normal distribution chain with goods-in-cases-and-on-pallets will with increasing online shopping soon not be the norm anymore.
Online shopping means that products are sent on their own or together with random other products. New methods are needed, and Magway has come up with a radical e-commerce delivery system that will reduce traffic on the roads and ease traffic congestion. The system promises reliable and predictable deliveries to CFCs and to a lower cost.

The first route planned is an 80 km route from northwest London to Milton Keynes, where large numbers of distribution centres are located. Already this year a 2 km test track will be built and tested.

This is an interesting period in time when online shopping is growing very fast and shoppers are expecting immediate deliveries. New solutions are really needed to gear up the supply chain for the new needs with lots of room for new thinking and developing of new concepts. All the above mentioned enterprises are going to be exciting to follow and I will absolutely keep an eye on all of them.

Online growth and packaging reconsidered

A new and purpose-made design can involve minimising size and weight, leading to concentrates and container reuse.

2019 looks like another big step forward for e-commerce, across categories. The final statistics might not quite in yet and the growth rates might not be as huge as a few years ago but the share of all retail is definitely growing, with consequences for the entire value chain.

One estimation is that, globally, the total growth of e-commerce in 2019 was 21% taking the online share of total retail sales up to a staggering 14%. The numbers vary strongly between categories and we are looking forward for the dust to settle and to get the final numbers for 2019.

As brand owner you respond to this shift in purchase patterns and adjust the offer, products and packaging to online shopping. One main consequence from a packaging/logistics point of view is that products are no longer shipped neatly stacked on pallets protected by secondary packaging.

Online shopping means the opposite for a shipped product. It could be sent alone to be delivered at a doorstep or be dispatched together with random products to a pick-up point, probably both. In any case the product will need more protection than the standard primary packaging can provide.

The situation is improved either by adding more and protective packaging, changing material from glass to plastic or why not design the packaging and product for e-commerce, or omnichannel, from the beginning.

A new and purpose-made design can involve minimising size and weight, leading to concentrates and container reuse.

Unilever has decided to make all their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. To get there they are, among other things, offering shoppers refillable containers. This also works well for online shopping where the smaller sized refill units are saving weight and cost.
Cif household cleaning products are offered as concentrated refill capsules for the original spray bottle. Just add water and hey presto the product is ready for use. Unilever is also part of the Loop initiative where a whole range of products are offered online in refillable containers.


Another similar product concept from a leading brand owner is Pepsico’s Drinkfinity, also an example of a concentrated product sold in shipping friendly containers. The concept consists of juice-based pods and a reusable water bottle. Just add some H2O. This is probably also a move to meet a shift in consumer demand for more healthy products. Nevertheless Drinkfinity was launched online where the product has an e-commerce site of its own, just like any other direct-to-consumer brand.


Perso is a L’Oreal concept that takes this a step further. Perso is a device that actually makes personalised skincare products for you, in your home, and is powered by Artificial Intelligence. From the three cartridges contained in the machine it makes unique skincare, lipstick and foundation products, just for you. All personalised as you have fed the thing with pictures of yourself, location and your preferences. This is what you can call reusable and smart packaging.

The concept of concentrated, space saving, light weight products has many positive sides. It saves cost, it is a great way to streamline online sales logistics and maybe it even gives the consumer the satisfaction of a “homemade” product.

We’ll meet again – return to reusable packaging?

The mantra in the packaging industry has for some time been Recycle, Reduce, Reuse. Recycling material is great when there is a demand for the recovered material and reduced use of material is good for both the environment and the budget. Reusable packaging is more complicated in many ways, in particular for food products.

The reuse concept has developed since the olden days of refillable glass bottles and today has an appeal also as an alternative to Single Use Plastics items for the foodservice industry and has a potential to improve environmental footprints for the e-commerce industry. It can also be a great marketing tool for food and beverage brand owners and a way to reach specific consumer groups.
Below a few examples of reusable packaging spotted along the way.

Food service

Hot drink cups with a deposit are now available in several cafés and restaurant, although in a small scale, where you pay up an extra dollar, pound or euro for your coffee, which then is returned when the container is returned at the bar.

Australian Returnr is taking the concept one step further when offering a series of foodservice containers. Not only cups but a whole range of reusable cups, bowls and lids that are designed for multiple use and also for takeaway. The aim is to support cafes and restaurants to eliminate single-use takeaway packaging. Returnr cups and bowls are, in Australia, free to borrow from cafes and restaurants with a $6 deposit. The deposit can then be claimed back from any restaurant who are working with Returnr. Something that attracts not only local cafés and restaurants but also Deliveroo who are offering Returnrs containers to their customers.

E-commerce

E-commerce as such is developing very fast but is from a packaging point of view there is plenty of room for new ideas.

RePack is an example of this. RePack is a packaging solution made specifically for e-commerce. It is a resealable and durable plastic bag in varying sizes that close with a zipper. It is unique though as it is made for reuse and linked to a deposit system. The reusable packaging itself is made from recycled materials and is space efficient in that it is flexible and adjustable to minimise air, saving money and resources. When the consumer receives the delivery, they return the now empty bag that is designed to fold back into letter size which simply is dropped in the nearest mailbox. The consumer incentive lies in the refund that comes as a discount on the next purchase. Back at RePack’s logistics hub the bag is cleaned and sent out to be used again.

Food and bev brand owners

Online grocery shopping is also growing very fast albeit from a small base and has some catching up to do compared to other segments. One significant example of new thinking is from Loop who promote reusable packaging for grocery and personal care products.

Loop is an interesting grocery e-commerce concept including a deposit-based refillable packaging scheme. It starts when a consumer order a home delivery where the Loop products arrive in a bespoke crate. With the following doorstep delivery of Loop products the empties are then picked up and returned for reuse. The packaging used is bespoke and made to be returned, cleaned and refilled. Materials used are metal, glass and plastic. Leading FMCG producers like Unilever, P&G and Nestlé have joint forces with TerraCycle an American recycling company to organise the Loop model. It’s in use in North America and in Europe the system is, at present, used by Tesco in the UK and by Carrefour in France.

Reusing containers is intuitively a good thing to do but the entire operation has to be considered, from start to landing. More transportation is usually needed, washing and rinsing using detergents and more material is normally used. When it comes to packaging it is never going to be simple but packaging reuse is definitely a path to explore. Looking forward to following the developments.

Is packaging less important for e-retailers?

E-commerce is showing double digit growth year out and year in. We are now on our way into the holiday seasons which will give the trade yet another boost. Clothing and electronics are still the two dominating categories. Food is not quite there, but coming strongly.plain-corrugated-box_10709490_250x250

Sealed Air recently made the results from an e-commerce study available, obviously with a packaging angle. The study was made in the US but there as here or anywhere the first physical encounter with the buyer/consumer is the packaging.

A staggering 66% of the interviewed also hold the view that “the packaging of their shipment shows them how much the retailer cares about them and their order”. I’m not surprised at all, you position your brand with packaging also in this business.

What is then irritating people the most when it comes to packaging and e-commerce? The top two items coming out of this study are concerning recycling and disposal of packaging. Here is room for improvement and a challenge for the innovative packaging industry.

My opinion is that packaging is just as important for the e-retailers. But today it seems forgotten and an opportunity missed by the e-commerce industry. I was at an e-commerce conference and trade show a few weeks ago. There was only one exhibitor who addressed the packaging issue. It was RePack who are offering a great reusable solution but this is a big and fast growing market and there must be space for more alternatives.