KANSAS CITY — The goal of retail-ready packaging (also called shelf-ready) can be explained using the “five easies” — easy to identify, easy to shop, easy to open, easy to shelve and easy to recycle. It’s a more streamlined secondary package design and one that is quickly becoming an American norm due to major retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, Aldi and Costco.

The first two qualities — easy to identify and easy to shop — relate to the consumer needs. Retail-ready provides a consistent appearance by keeping a brand’s product in neat rows behind the correct U.P.C. on a shelf. The brand design on the secondary packaging itself makes a company stand out as well.

“You’ve really obtained an additional billboard that you can use for all of your product,” said Rick Gessler, vice-president of marketing, engineering and production, Delkor Systems, Inc. “If you do a good job with branding and maybe separating flavors or styles, it helps the consumer make a decision more quickly.”

While creating a package that’s easy for customers to find is a priority, the more important qualities — easy to open and easy to shelve — relate to retailers. 

“You will rarely hear praise about your package design from the retailer or end user. It is more likely that you will hear about a box if it is not performing as expected. This may mean the package is not palletizing effectively, or that it is displaying poorly on shelves due to rips and tears,” according to Delkor’s “Retail-Ready Packaging: A Practical Online Guide.”

And all of this is important to reduce labor, retailers’ ultimate objective.

“Ten years ago, a case of product required a human being to pick each one out of the case and put it on the shelf,” said Bill Kehrli, vice-president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging Group.

While many consider retail-ready to be secondary packaging, Mr. Kehrli generally views it as tertiary due to the shipment ability and layering.

“Retail-ready packaging, which is tertiary packaging, is a package that could be put on a store shelf and have nothing or the minimal done to it, meaning it creates its own display,” he noted.

With its corrugated tray and cardboard top, typical shelf-ready packaging is similar to a simple box. However, the top usually has a perforation or a string that is torn off to make the products on the tray visible to the consumer.

Retailers have reduced the number of employees who place and replace products on the shelves, so they need easy-to-use packaging.

“It must be a fast and agile process,” said Guilherme Vivona, director of South America, BluePrint Automation (BPA). “If the product is nicely placed inside a case with a pre-cut design to detach its upper part, turning it into a display to place in the shelf, results in faster replacement yet tidy presentation.”

According to Mr. Gessler, the easier the process, the more likely employees are to follow correct stocking practices. Retail-ready cuts down on regular stocking time as well as rotational stocking because an employee simply grabs an entire tray instead of one product at a time. For this reason, some retailers require shelf-ready packaging or have a goal to reach complete shelf-ready packaging in the future.

“It’s about the lack of labor time to restock shelves,” said Jorge Izquierdo, vice-president of market development, PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. “So there’s no question. Retail-ready is growing, and it’s expected to keep growing in the near future.”

Package deals

As a fairly new player in the food industry, retail-ready packaging can change the game by addressing challenges with fluidity in distribution, stocking at the store level and durability in shipping. In terms of stocking, the format keeps the pouches upright and together on a tray; all the employee has to do is place one tray on the shelf.

“When you’re working with flexible packaging, retail-ready packaging saves a lot of time. Even more than time, it ensures that the presentation of the shelf is the right one, has the right look and is oriented the right way,” Mr. Izquierdo said.

The weight for rigid primary packaging will be greater than that of flexible packaging, so a box with a higher pallet strength is crucial. For example, Delkor groups multiple trays together for a stable pallet pattern and places a corrugated pad over the top before the products are shrink-wrapped together. Not only does this help with the stability of rigid primary packaging in general, but it also creates stability for narrow-facing trays on shelves, which is usually required by retailers.

Another quality is the display. This can be a challenge when a company is looking to streamline a process because it’s inefficient for an employee to search for the brand design before putting a tray on the shelf.

“In our industry of snacks, cakes and granola bars, the challenge is that the carton needs to have its billboard, its advertising face, facing the consumer,” Mr. Kehrli said. “This can be quite tricky to arrange with a case because automation drives it in a different direction and changes yields on skids and shipping.”

Cavanna Packaging builds multipack systems for cookies and snacks that are retail-ready from the beginning with the brand design on each side of the package.

Safe in transit

A perforated box or tray, one of the most common types of retail-ready packaging, is designed in a way that retail employees — from couch potatoes to bodybuilders — can easily tear the perforation cleanly before placing the package on the shelf.

To do this, manufacturers will often weaken the case’s materials. And while this action contributes to retailers’ No. 1 goal of saving labor, it can compromise the case’s strength during transportation. The challenge becomes weakening the material enough but not too much. BPA recommends E-flute or B-flute materials for shelf-ready packages because they provide high resistance and protection.

“At Pack Expo 2018, we found innovative easy-open options that combine different s.k.u.s with easy-open retail-ready formats with shrink wrap, accomplishing two different goals with one single solution,” Mr. Izquierdo said.

Delkor’s patented Cabrio Case is a tray and hood display — made to eliminate the perforation balancing act — that’s typically used for flat products as well as those in bags or pouches. Retail employees remove the hood and place the remaining tray that holds the product onto the shelf.

“There is no chance for jagged edges or for anything to really compromise the appearance of the product on the shelf,” Mr. Gessler said. “And it’s designed to be a very efficient shipping case in terms of the corrugated board usage.”

Baking and snack products must be given extra consideration and care during shipment.

“These products are not, by nature, sturdy and resilient,” Mr. Izquierdo noted. “Most likely, you will have to invest a little more money on the retail-ready packaging to protect the product.”

This could mean a company has to use different retail-ready packaging equipment or material than what it uses for other products. For example, potato chips can’t be packaged in a beer case or bottled water tray because they’re too delicate and require stronger packaging material, Mr. Kehrli noted.

Most bakery and snack products in rigid packaging won’t have issues during shipment, but for products that are flowrapped, bagged or in stand-up pouches, orientation could be key.

“Let’s say you’re putting six pouches in a case,” Mr. Gessler suggested. “You may not want to stand them all up because it’s a soft-baked product such as a donut. You may get product settling during shipment, so you want to consider if that product should be laid on its side instead of stood up or laid flat.”

Good orientation also creates additional strength to the package through better weight distribution.

Regular shipping cases also typically carry more product than retail-ready packaging. Companies could go from a pack of 24 to a pack of six. This can have an adverse effect on pallet yield and stability during shipment, so precautions are crucial.

“Consider stacking strength,” Mr. Kehrli advised. “And do shipping tests on the new retail-ready package to make sure that the new package can get to the customer intact and doesn’t destroy the product it’s intended to protect.”

This article is an excerpt from the November 2018 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on secondary packaging, click here.