Staying Safe

The COVID-19 crisis has shifted consumer habits, with more consumers looking for safety, as well as convenience, all of which is changing the way flexible packaging companies and suppliers are viewing the future.

In a series of white papers and other publications since the crisis started, Euromonitor International has relayed a number of global trends that will impact industry. For example, the Chicago-based market research and statistics company has noted trends—from stockpiling of products early in the crisis to shifting consumer habits to the widespread use and adaptation of e-commerce—that companies can study to adjust their plans and better meet demands.

“Staples like pasta and canned foods are some of the fastest-moving products across online and in-person outlets in the short term,” says a report prepared by Tom Rees, industry manager, food and nutrition, for Euromonitor. “Looking ahead, COVID-19 should prompt consumers to be more health conscious and incorporate more nutritional eating into their diets.”

The report also suggested that financial uncertainty will see consumers cut back on premium lines and shift toward discounted and private-label brands. His report also notes that snack trends will evolve with families staying indoors, opening opportunities for snack producers to offer more options online. As the economies worldwide open wider, retailers can expect the shift to e-commerce and online shopping to accelerate.

“In the U.S., for example, Amazon is adding 100,000 new positions to its delivery network,” Rees writes in his report.

Todd Bukowski, a principal with Ann Arbor, Michigan-based PTIS, LLC, co-authored a study for the Flexible Packaging Association that looked at e-commerce and how flexible packaging compared to traditional packaging. The report was commissioned before the pandemic and released in the early summer, but Bukowski says that the benefits noted in the study should resonate with companies that are aggressively moving online since the crisis.

“Consumers have gravitated back toward staple goods they know and trust during the pandemic,” Bukowski says. “More and more of these brands have been moving large portions of their portfolio to flexible packaging for the reasons of enhanced shelf life, convenience, reclosability, reduced GHG emissions, modern look, etc. But we need to consider each product and how it will be distributed to consumers.”

Bukowski notes that flexible packaging has proven to work well for products such as laundry detergents or pods where it can help contain and prevent leaks during shipping.

“No one wants a damaged product that disappoints the consumer upon a product being opened,” he says. “…So it’s really a fit-for-purpose type of approach that we need to take—but, in general, flexible packaging does have a number of features that make it attractive to use for e-commerce applications.”

Euromonitor International also examined retail trends involving the spike for products such as tissue and hygiene and cleaning products, in addition to food. A report by Michelle Evans, senior head of global digital consumer research for Euromonitor, notes the potential for a long recovery until there is a vaccine for COVID-19 and while social distancing remains in place. “The longer such measures last, the more likely it is to fundamentally change consumers,” Evans writes. 

One such change will be consumers seeking safety, several observers note. That might mean that companies re-examine sustainability efforts, although sustainability will remain important.

“Companies are taking a step back in the war on the throwaway culture, temporarily pausing the use of reusable and refillable containers, due to consumers’ health concerns about touching products that have passed through other people’s hands,” writes Gina Westbrook, director of consumer trends for Euromonitor. 

For example, California in late April lifted its ban on supermarket plastic bags for 60 days, The New York Times reported at the time.

Westbrook notes that companies started being “more clean than green,” with a temporary return to single-use or disposable items “perceived by consumers as more hygienic, with some governments easing or even lifting recent bans on single-use plastic items to stop the spread of the virus.”

“The companies across the supply chain that continue to focus on sustainability but elevate safety will be in the best positions.”

Brian Hall, managing director at G&S Business Communications, Chicago

Brian Hall, managing director at G&S Business Communications in Chicago, notes that sustainability will remain a primary focus going forward for flexible packaging companies but that safety concerns prompted by COVID-19 will shift priorities.

“The companies across the supply chain that continue to focus on sustainability but elevate safety will be in the best positions,” Hall says. He expands upon those ideas in an article in this issue titled, “Is Safety the New Sustainability for Food Packaging?”

“Communication and transparency are essential,” Hall writes in his column, while referencing a poll done by his company. “Sixty-six percent of those polled say stakeholders in the food packaging industry should proactively communicate the actions they are taking to secure a safe and quality supply.”

Bukowski suggests that flexible packaging suppliers can serve a role in providing consumers with what they want and need in ways that highlight safety, sustainability, and ease of shipping through e-commerce.

“A good example of a package that bridges this is a new product from ProAmpac called CurbSafe that uses tamper-evident tape to secure the package, along with perforations for easy opening, along with vent holes at the top of the bag for heat to escape for food deliveries,” Bukowsi says. “The package is also designed for store drop-off recycling, so it really addresses a number of critical trends.”

Meanwhile, research continues toward recyclable mono-material pouches with improved barrier properties that can be recycled with grocery store drop off programs. “So, we will likely see that play a larger role over time,” he adds. 

The shifting trends are being noted by companies all along the supply chain, says Doug Aldred, president of packaging inks for Flint Group, with offices around the globe. Brand owners can demonstrate that their products “kept society running,” Aldred says. 

“What is clear is that health and safety has naturally become a paramount concern to society in general,” Aldred says. “The safety of the food and beverages we consume, along with pharmaceutical and medical products, has a new-found respect and appreciation in its supply. High-quality packaging, with superb functionality to ensure the contents inside are clean and untampered, coupled with clearly printed ingredients details and instructions for use, have become highly revered during this time of crisis.”

In the future, components like blockchain traceability throughout the supply chain will play a larger role for moving products and packages—further providing confidence in product safety for companies and consumers, Bukowski says.

“It does seem that packaging will really be expected to navigate safety, traceability, as well sustainability,” he adds. “From a safety perspective, there is an opportunity for flexible packaging to help provide consumer confidence that their food or package has not been tampered with.”

Sustainability Remains Important

Long-term, sustainability is not going away, he and others maintain. Westbrook writes that new business models that avoid waste generation are appealing to a growing list of consumers.

“Circularity is the new reality,” she writes. “Today, the Reuse Revolutionaries trend signals a waste-free future for the safety of the planet and human health. Reuse Revolutionaries are keen to do their part to keep waste out of landfills and the natural environment.”

The PTIS e-commerce life-cycle assessment report for FPA found that companies can point to sustainability successes, such as flexible packaging using less water and having lower carbon emissions than many other packaging formats. For the flexible packaging industry looking to increase its e-commerce presence while promoting sustainability, Bukowski cites several examples where flexible packages can be space-efficient.

“The Bear Naked Cereal in a stand-up pouch is a great example where the pouch is nested in a six-pack orientation (three bags in each direction) inside a shipping case, so they really minimize the amount of product space while providing a reclose feature that a traditional bag-in-box cereal does not offer,” he says.

“Safety, traceability, and sustainability will all be around for a while. Looking for flexibles that can offer all of these in the future will be critical.”

Todd Bukowski, a principal with PTIS, LLC

Because flexible packaging is light, it can be formed around the product, which can result in lower overall shipping costs, Bukowski points out.

“In one example where we looked at cereal, the published shipping rates for the stand-up pouch were about 25% lower than a bag-in-box application,” he says. “Of course, large companies would not be charged the published rates, but it does show there can be large savings through reducing overall package volume for e-commerce shipping.”

Each company will need to examine how products will best benefit during shipping through increased use of e-commerce.

“It’s really on a case-by-case basis, but there are categories such as clothing where flexibles could play a nice role—and also offer the convenience for returns with easy features such as an adhesive strip built in for returns—which are very high for clothing and shoes in e-commerce,” Bukowski says.

Overall, companies that can see the larger picture and the pieces that make it up will stand to best serve their customers, he says.

“Safety, traceability, and sustainability will all be around for a while,” Bukowski says. “Looking for flexibles that can offer all of these in the future will be critical. COVID-19 has put an immediate focus on safety that may be with us for the longer term, but sustainability won’t be stopping, with brand owners setting goals on all their packaging being recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.”

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE™.