Shelf-ready packs are by no means new but, as SCA Packaging head of product development Graham Willcocks told Jonathan Baillie, their advantages are increasingly being seized upon by brand owners and retailers keen to improve in-store efficiencies
Graham Willcocks, who heads a six-strong design department at SCA Packaging’s Aylesford, Kent HQ, says designing shelf-ready packaging has become “probably the number one activity” for his team in the past 5-10 years.
In the mid-1990s, with big supermarkets striving to find ways to improve in-store handling efficiencies while simultaneously pepping up shelf displays, Willcocks’ team began their drive towards shelf-ready packaging in earnest.
It did so, firstly, by conducting extensive pan-European research to determine the most time-consuming and labour-intensive in-store handling processes. Secondly, it set out to identify how, using its extensive transit packaging expertise, it could streamline them for brand owners and retailers. SCA Aylesford was lucky to have an ambient and a chilled goods distribution centre, and a large supermarket operated by the same retailer, close by.
Willcocks elaborates: “While we found many goods still shrinkwrapped, there were also many, often less robust items requiring a fully closed container to get them safely to store. The usual pack format was the traditional brown box, the very pack that, although ideal in transportation terms, caused the greatest difficulty for shelf packers.” Although acknowledging that there have since been “significant improvements” to make such packs quicker to open, Willcocks believes getting into them and decanting product still “takes up a lot of time and manpower”.
He adds: “We were pretty surprised retailers hadn’t exerted more pressure on brand owners to change packaging. Brown boxes and shrinkwrap transit packaging formats had a whole time-consuming process associated with them – from locating the right box at back-of-store and opening it to replenishing the shelf and dealing with the packaging afterwards.
“Opening the pack was just one aspect,” Willcocks continues. “That’s why today you’ve got complete solutions, like our One Touch shelf-ready units, which allow in-store conversion from transit pack to display unit that consider all the processes.”
Switching from conventional transit packaging to shelf-ready, of course, requires understanding not just pack requirements, but also any cost constraints and machinery investment implications.
However, with companies like SCA having had the expertise to facilitate such a change for many years, why did retailers not seize more quickly on the format? “I think many had other agendas – environmental, driving down costs on a wider front etc,” says Willcocks, “while the pressure for change just wasn’t like today’s.” Tesco was, however, a pioneer: “It had a supply chain team examining the whole process early on.”
Armed with video “evidence” of where existing transit packaging and in-store handling operations were poor, SCA Packaging set about suggesting improvements.
“Our goal was not simply to devise ways to make existing boxes cheaper, which often leads to poor quality, but how to create dual function transit packaging that would work better and add value,” Willcocks explains.
“This is what we believe we have achieved with One Touch. What rapidly became clear was the further down the supply chain towards the store you go, the more complexity and labour in the range of goods handled. Further back up the chain it’s far more automated today – more pallets and fewer people. So the rewards for change are much more for the retailer than the brand owner or us.”
Willcocks says today’s most noticeable in-store trend, alongside making shelves more eye-catching, is faster, more frequent shelf replenishment.
“These dual goals makes the change process even more difficult, with numerous challenges, because what you’ve often got currently is a box of, say, 24 products which is too big a unit to put on shelf and also often not in a very attractive material. When changing to shelf-ready, you’ve not only got a change of pack style and design, but also size [perhaps now 6-8 products in a pack, rather than 24] and often shape.
“The retailer might say: ‘Right, I’ll give you one or two facings’. You may have to put one unit behind another so the packs may need to be less deep. Packs might need to be a third of the size of the previous brown box, three times more might be needed, and the grocery goods must simultaneously stand out.”
In the 90s the rapid shelf replenishment issue “wasn’t nearly so strong”. “Getting the size of the unit right was nothing like as important,” says Willcocks. “This is simply due to today’s pressure on shelf space. A box of six may only last one or two days. Retailers want to fill shelves every day, not weekly, while there is even more pressure on costs so all distribution and supply chain issues must be very carefully considered.”
Willcocks, who points out that good shelf-ready packs “also make shopfloor personnel more motivated to replenish shelves more often”, feels brand owners too should recognise the benefits to them of having an easier to replenish box.
“If they see a retailer request to switch to shelf-ready as just a case of ‘having to do it’, they’re missing the point. It’s potentially a way for them to add value, promote and sell more product, while simultaneously improving their customer rapport.”
Shelf-ready packs would be more prevalent today, he argues, were it not for the fact that a switchover often requires significant brand owner investment in new equipment. The format in which SCA supplies its shelf-ready and other transit packaging to customers varies. For instance with a recent Kellogg’s shelf-ready pack, now being used throughout Europe for 500g Corn Flakes packs, SCA supplies flat blanks for customer erection on specialist equipment.
“SCA Packaging doesn’t make this equipment,” Willcocks explains. “Instead we work with the best machinery producers and recommend a set-up – thus the change process can take one to two years – but the upshot is the pack performs well and lasts. We relish the rapid move towards shelf-ready. We can show our design skills. Too often transit/secondary/tertiary packaging is just seen as a bog-standard transport container.”
One recent especially successful SCA shelf-ready project involved PZ Cussons’ Morning Fresh washing up liquid. Willcocks explains: “Cussons was looking at their secondary/transit packaging for a relaunch, with the primary pack changing from an opaque to clear 500 and 750ml PET bottles. It had had requests from retailers to go to shelf-ready. They wanted to reduce unpacking times and improve orientation by giving four facings to the product. They also didn’t want too deep a case so they could put several bottles one behind each other. So box shape and orientation had to change.”
SCA designed and produced a shelf-ready pack from white liner corrugated board, flexo printing the brand name clearly on the outer box. “Retailer desire to reduce in-store labour was the major driving factor,” Willcocks explains. “Imagine how long it takes to decant 16 bottles, compared to just opening up the front of a shelf-ready unit and putting the lot on display.” Generally, SCA can produce shelf-ready packs to accommodate a maximum 15kg weight of product, although 5-10kg tends to be “more usual”.
The Morning Fresh shelf-ready pack is perforated on front and top. The product can be accessed in two ways. Customers wanting to create a shelf-ready display unit in one movement need simply open the front and then lift the top half of the box away with special perforations while, for those preferring to remove bottles individually, there are perforations in the top of the case. The pack can, if required, then be reclosed and returned to back-of-store.
Cussons had to invest in a Europack wraparound casepacker to complete the switch but Willcocks says it was always anticipated the relaunch would involve “a big spend”. The 500ml Morning Fresh washing up liquid is now completely in this form of packaging UK-wide.
Kellogg’s also cited numerous advantages after its switch to an SCA-produced shelf-ready pack. It was one of first major brand owners to make a big change to shelf-ready – between 1999 and 2001 – driven mainly by Tesco, which had originally asked that its 500g Corn Flakes carton be put onto dollies.
Kellogg’s, however, operates fully automated packing lines not easily modifiable to accommodate them. It was also concerned that, as the cereal is volumetrically sensitive and shipped in high trailers, introducing dollies would have meant a decrease in fill efficiencies and increases in vehicle movements and cost.
“Kellogg’s has high volume production, and wanted a pack that worked for everyone,” says Willcocks. “After considerable testing etc, we developed a shelf-ready design now used Europe-wide, which does a good job all-round. There’s sufficient corrugated to protect but, simultaneously, we use the least material possible for sound pack economics.
“It’s made from a fully recycled board and has a special feature to open the whole of the front of the box. One pulls away the front section in-store and then, either puts the unit on shelf, or stacks it up as a display unit on the floor, one on top of the other – even eight or nine high.” Retailers cited ease of handling, reduction in manpower requirements and faster shelf replenishment.
The Mark 2 tray now used is an evolution of the original Mark 1. Both hold 16 500g Corn Flakes packs in 2×8 formation but, in Mark 2 form, the small corrugated section low on the front facing was removed for better product visibility.
“In addition to providing an eye-catching display, the time savings in store [Kellogg’s had previously used a standard FEFCO 0201-style-case from which each carton had to be individually removed] are substantial,” says Willcocks. “This ability to kill several birds with one stone is typical with a change to shelf-ready packaging.”