Shelf appeal – the rise of flexible packaging

6 April 2017

Barry Mansfield looks into brand-owners’ rapid adoption of flexible packaging in recent years. Why the steady growth, and how can it continue to thrive?

Flexible packaging is the most economical way to package, preserve and transport food, beverages, other consumables, pharmaceuticals and items that require extended shelf life. Barrier properties can be tailored according to the size, contours and specific end-uses of products, while other barrier formats typically provide a one-size-fits-all approach. Flexible packaging can now be made in a wide variety of distinctive shapes, sizes and appearances, and can involve components such as handles or opening and reclosing features, such as zips and spouts.

According to Smithers Pira, international demand for flexible packaging is expected to reach $210 billion by 2015 and $248 billion by 2020, making it one of the fastest growing packaging sectors. The technology involved has progressed dramatically in the last decade and is now a household mainstay, steadily moving into new markets and applications. What started with simple monolayer bags and wrappings has ended with coextruded, or laminated, engineered multilayer and coated constructions, using materials that include plastics, paper, and metal foils and additives.

Food is projected to account for three-quarters of worldwide consumer flexible packaging consumption. Meat, fish and poultry are the largest sub-sectors in food, followed by confectionery and baked goods. This type of packaging has been growing at an average annual rate of 4% in volume terms. Despite massive industry-wide adoption and in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) in particular, flexible packaging sometimes fails to meet the investment objectives of brand-owners. For instance, cereal manufacturers have significant investments in existing bag-in-box equipment.

No compromise

It was once regarded as a compromise, but flexible packaging increased by over half in the consumer packaged goods category in the last six years, according to research group Mintel. Around a third of consumers consider it a vital part of the modern retail experience, but it also offers some additional decoration and marketing opportunities for the brand-owner. Mintel reckons brands will continue looking to pouches to capture consumers’ attention. The next generation of rigid/flexible hybrids combine function with environmental benefits and fantastic shelf presence.

Early 2017 has brought a marked shift in this direction, with Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms brand moving its veggie burgers and nuggets from the long-standing bag-in-box carton to flexible pouches, in this case with Zip-Pak’s Double-Zip. The closure uses two sets of interlocking profiles, cleverly spaced to guide the customer’s fingers when sealing a package. This makes it easier to align, providing a secure, complete seal each time the product is used. For now, though, the frozen category as a whole remains dominated by the traditional bag-in-box rigid package format.

The new zipper-based, stand-up and flow-wrap packages are more cost-effective, but the objective of most brand-owners is to elevate point-of-sale impact. A successful recent example here is Cape Cod’s Bags of Cash Sweepstakes promotion bag, which was awarded a gold award for printing and shelf impact by the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) in March. The typical bag features the firm’s kettle-cooked chips front and centre, but for this promotion, the bottom half of the bag was filled with US dollars and a metallic (gold) money pouch.

The package provokes inquiry and brings shelf appeal by combining matt film with metallic elements. Another good example can be found in Starbucks’ limited-edition Chiapas Coffee bag, which won FPA’s silver award in the same category. Since the beans are grown in a region with diverse wildlife, Starbucks chose a jaguar to feature on the package, which is a rotogravure-printed, four-ply laminate with spot matt lacquer. As with the Cape Cod promotion, this bag was created to boost shelf appeal with a design that consumers would want to display at home.

Kellogg’s chose flexible pouches for its muesli and porridge brands in its bid to appeal to healthier, more mobile lifestyles, and this message is strongly communicated through the flexible, tough, environmentally friendly packaging. Exploring how to gain the attention of older children and young men – neither of which tend to be notable porridge fans – senior vice-president of marketing for morning foods Noel Geoffory spent “big chunks of time” with consumers, and saw how many of them stuffed cereal into plastic bags in order to “take it along for snacking”.

Flexible packaging has traditionally had poor environmental credentials, but there are signs that this may be changing. Brand-owners are taking steps to mitigate the problem; according to Waitrose’s spokesperson, Laura Blumenthal, “We are continuing to work on cutting down our packaging. We’re getting close to our target of reducing packaging by 50% compared with 2005.” She gives the example of an egg box used in the Duchy Organic range, constructed from a mixture of rye grass and recycled paper, which saves 77t of wood and paper annually and takes 60% less water to produce.

Waitrose has also been making small changes across its own-brand range that add up to big reductions. For example, moving steaks from trays to flat vacuum-packs saves 30t of packaging a year, while switching to half-sleeves for ready meals saves 127t of paper annually. Blumenthal says the company is constantly weighing up its options.

“We’re working with suppliers and packaging manufacturers to develop and source alternative materials, especially for black trays,” she adds.

Increasingly flexible

Why the big industry-wide transformation in the last five years? John Nelson, commissioning editor at research house Smithers Pira, says numerous factors influence the decision to switch from a rigid formats like glass jars to laminates or pure plastic pouches. The latter cost less in terms of raw materials, but they are also lighter, which reduces harmful emissions, thereby conforming to the corporate citizenship ideals of major brands. There are also a range of new caps and other fixtures that help to make flexibles more practical across various FMCG segments.

According to Nelson, a disadvantage with pouches is that they can be “viewed as a cheap solution for a cheaper product” by consumers, and this has retarded their use. It may be significant that the two segments penetrated most quickly by pouches – pet food and baby foods – are those where the consumer has no say in the purchasing decision, he adds. “This is being countered with better multilayer plastic formats, and print effects… and new technologies, like high-transparency windows that can display the product directly.”  

Barrier performance is essential for food. New flexible formats that deliver performance suitable for retort packaging are gaining market share – including those that do not require an expensive, not-easily-recyclable aluminium layer. “Flexible plastics and laminates suffered from the fact that they are hard to recycle,” Nelson points out. “Even though savings in materials and transport costs would typically outweigh this, that’s less well understood by customers and affects their use.” Technologies coming to market enable recycling of multilayer and laminate materials.

An alternative is to optimise the selection of materials used in a multilayer product, to make them easier to separate at end of life. Dow Chemical has recently taken this principle to its logical conclusion with its mono-material polyethylene stand-up pouch. Biopolymer substrates have been developed – like the Snickers wrapper made by Taghleef in the Netherlands – but the industry still needs to build capacity. Nevertheless, flexible is an exciting segment and Nelson points out that it is  less mature than metal cans, where there is a lot of innovation.

Now the concept is well accepted, the industry focus is presently on evolving more flexible formats into new areas. One example is the TCL/B&G ready-meal pouch launched with Asda last year. Described as “the first of its kind”, the printed Doypack took a year to develop, is suitable for microwaves and conventional ovens cooking up to 200°C and can be frozen. It is made from a PET structure to ensure maximum rigidity and stability during cooking.

Spout and about

Flexible can also satisfy highly specific cases, such as the Heinz pouch equipped with a wide spout to provide bigger chunks and more texture to babies of ten months and older. When the innovation was rolled out across stage two (seven months and older) products, sales jumped by 17%. Gaëlle Vernet, Heinz baby’s brand manager, notes that 25% of meals are consumed away from home, leading to a demand from parents for “the right texture and nutrition for their children at each stage, without compromising on convenience”. The pouches are on sale at Asda, Morrisons and Tesco.

Four lines of the new I Am Super Grains product launched in 400 Asda stores last year. Vogueish ingredients and flavours wrapped in vibrant, modern packaging are designed to reel in younger, health-conscious consumers who desire quick, satisfying and nutritious meals. Barney Mauleverer, co-founder of the brand, says the aim was to appeal to“adventurous types who are less likely to cook these meals from scratch”. High in protein and fibre, the grains supposedly help customers stay fuller for longer, and can be added to meals, or eaten on the go.

Closing technology has added a great deal recently. Reclosing fixtures on pouches, or for the film on a rigid tray, cuts food waste and increases convenience. Much work is also being undertaken on child-resistant closures that could allow greater use of flexibles for, say, household and garden chemicals. Another important element is the speed of food and beverage lines using form-fill-seal technology. These are rising, helping to make the transition to flexibles more attractive for brands and converters.

The limitations of flexible packaging mean workarounds are sometimes necessary at the point of sale. For example, Costa Coffee and Starbucks both launched in-store cup recycling following an unrelenting media campaign around coffee cup waste. The plan here is to reduce the millions of used disposable cups that end up in landfill. Costa’s launch followed trials in London and Manchester; it rolled out the recycling racks in all 2,000 stores by the close of January with a clear message that it recycled any paper takeaway cup, no matter what brand.  

Change brewing

It was discovered last year that just one in every 400 coffee cups was recycled in the UK, since they are made of a traditionally problematic mix of paper and plastic.

This led to widespread calls for a charge on takeaway cups by public figures including River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

So, it seems the coffee industry could be fertile ground for new flexible packaging types. For now, Costa is funding research at Sheffield University into cup recyclability and currently donates 25p to litter charities every time a customer uses a reusable cup in a Costa store.

Simon Redfern, vice-president of communications for Starbucks Europe, describes the issue as “complex, but important” and says he will “continue to test new paper cup innovations that meet our safety standards”.

In the meantime, the firm is working to reduce paper cup usage with its 25p reusable cup discount and by encouraging customers to recycle. This move follows successful back of house trials with Veolia last spring. Since January, 21 Starbucks stores across London have featured cup bins for emptying, stacking and collection of cups for effective recycling.

Source: Costa Coffee/Starbucks Europe

Four lines of I Am Super Grains launched in 400 Asda stores in 2016.

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