Out of the pantry

It might seem wise to buy the cheapest packaging machine available, but you don’t have to be an expert in the nuances of machine automation to know it can make the difference in purchasing decisions.

By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

Dan HebertYes, it is true. It’s hard to admit something that heretofore was known only to family and my closest friends. I know some might consider this a violation of a primary man law, but I can no longer live a lie. I prance on down to the grocery store each week and do all the shopping for our family of five. There, I’ve outed myself. I feel better already.

You’re wondering how this relates to machine automation? Well, I—and millions of other grocery shoppers—make many purchase decisions based on the quality of product packaging.

What determines good product packaging? The quality of the packaging machine and its automation system has a lot to do with it.

You don’t have to be an expert in the nuances of packaging machine automation to know it can make the difference between mediocre and outstanding packaging. It’s easy to see how these differences directly affect purchase decisions at the grocery store.

My pet peeve is reclosable plastic bags that don’t reclose. I will pay a premium for a reclosable bag that actually seals, and I refuse to buy any product packaged in a reclosable bag that doesn’t work. This makes financial sense as bags that don’t reclose cause premature product spoilage, or require me to double bag with a Ziploc bag that actually does work.

Cupola-style, gabled-roof milk and juice containers are another big issue for grocery shoppers. Opening a cheap cupola container is an exercise in frustration, driving consumers to a sharp knife...to open the damn container! If only the milk company had invested an extra 10% to buy a packaging machine with a modern control system that precisely dispenses the right amount of glue.

What about easy-open cans with pull tabs that fall off with the slightest tug? The consumer is left with a can not designed for a can opener and no good alternatives to actually get to the contents.

For a more traditional perspective, I interviewed one of my wife’s co-workers. Avid grocery shopper Sue Sheffield has a few things to say about the importance of grocery store packaging.

“I quit buying Dannon water in the 16.9-oz size because I could never get the cap off,” says Sue. “The screw caps on water bottles also can be a problem if you have tendonitis. Plastic milk caps on a gallon plastic jug sometimes break off and you end up using a knife.”

On the positive side, Sheffield gravitates towards blue water bottles, ignoring the prosaic clear alternatives. She goes with 8th Continent for her soy milk purchases because they use a hard plastic container with curved edges. She finds this much snazzier—to use a highly technical consumer-packaging term—than a waxed carton.

Sheffield, too, has definite opinions on cupola containers. “There are orange juice cupola containers that have a built-in plastic spout,” she observes. “When you see a company using that instead of the regular cupola carton, you think they care more about their product and the customer because it costs more to manufacture it that way.” It’s interesting that a non-technical person can correctly identify and appreciate when companies spend a little extra to manufacture things the right way.

The biggest culprits when it comes to poor packaging are store brands. Despite low prices, and even though the contents often are indistinguishable from branded products, sub-standard packaging is a problem.

In the grocery industry, store brands have a 45% market share in Switzerland, 37% in the U.K., but only 12% in the U.S. Scholarly studies claim differences in market concentration, store-brand positioning, and consumer price sensitivity are responsible for this phenomenon.

I think the relatively low penetration of store brands among shoppers in the U.S. is due largely to the poorer packaging of store brands in the U.S. as compared to Europe.

Companies that sell to consumers should know packaging appearance and quality affect purchase decisions. It might seem wise to buy the cheapest packaging machine available, but that company shouldn’t be surprised if sales nosedive.

Pass the word to potential customers: cheap out on machine controls and lose customers, or invest in automation and reap the benefits. I know it. Sue knows it. So do millions of other consumers.

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