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Packaging FAQs

Ten FAQs on packaging.

  1. What sorts of packaging might I need?
  2. How do I know whether to use basic, functional packaging or invest money in a stylish design?
  3. Can I make minimalist or recyclable packaging into a selling point?
  4. Sourcing the right packaging is a nightmare. Where should I look?
  5. It's only economical if I order 10,000 cartons at a time. What can I do?
  6. What cost-cutting ideas can I explore?
  7. The labelling and safety regulations are so complicated. Where can I get help?
  8. How can I stop breakages in transit?
  9. How can I speed up the packing process?
  10. How can I pass the cost of packaging on to my customers?

1.  What sorts of packaging might I need?

Start by ensuring your packaging is, above all else, functional, ie that it keeps the contents secure and physically manageable. Take into account the different situations the packaging may need to function in: applying the packaging to the product; storing it on your premises; delivery or postage; storage and display and a retailer or wholesaler; delivery or collection by a customer; and storage, opening and possibly resealing by the end user.

Secondly, ensure that the packaging identifies its contents adequately and complies with any legal requirements with regard to labelling. Packaging may also include appropriate instructions on how to handle the packaging and use the product.

Thirdly, take into account packaging's role in marketing. Ensure that the quality of the packaging is consistent with your product and corporate image. If the product will be displayed (for example, in a shop), design the packaging to help sell the product.

Depending on your product, you may need anything from bubble wrap to specially (and expensively) printed boxes. The main categories are likely to be:

  1. Corrugated boxes to protect goods in transit. Plain or printed with your name, and often bearing handling information, such as 'This way up', 'Use no hooks', 'Do not stack more than three high'.
  2. Solid board cartons in full colour, bearing your corporate imagery and with instructions, country of origin details and, perhaps, plastic window insets. These bespoke cartons can be very expensive, especially if they need physical customisation.
  3. Bottles, cans and containers of all sizes, from blow-moulded jerrycans to vacuum-formed blister packs.
  4. Bubble wrap, shrink wrap, polystyrene beads for loose fill, polystyrene foam (moulded or hot wire cut to hold and protect delicate products), strapping systems, adhesive tape (overprinted, if necessary), self-seal card, Jiffy bags, postal tubes, poly bags, anti-static wraps and so on.
  5. Labels for identification or to carry care instructions, ingredient lists or fibre content details.
  6. Export crates.

Closely allied to this sector is point of sale material, which may include price stickers, leaflet dispensers and counter display packs.

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2.  How do I know whether to use basic, functional packaging or invest money in a stylish design?

This depends on your product, how you sell it, and its market positioning.

If you sell animal feed or cement, for example, then your packaging can be basic - as long as it identifies and secures the product. If you sell air freshener, you will want the package to carry a hint of what the product can do for the buyer - and to look good and sell itself from the shelf. If, on the other hand, you are selling a premium 'lifestyle' product such as expensive underwear or fragrance, or even luxury chocolates, then the quality of the packaging design becomes vital in conveying a sense of promise to the buyer. It is worth remembering that premium products tend to make greater profits, so any investment you make in creating appropriate packaging is probably sound.

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3.  Can I make minimalist or recyclable packaging into a selling point?

Without a doubt, yes. This could work on at least three levels. Firstly, if you want to demonstrate that your product is eco-friendly or 'green'. Secondly, if you want to convey that your product is plain, simple and honest - without additives and frills. Lastly, if you wish to convey a sense of low cost, money-saving produce. Be warned though, that each approach would require a completely different emphasis to the design.

A few companies, such as Body Shop, have managed to do this convincingly. But they are the exceptions. It is true that there is growing consumer resistance to overpackaging, but most selling environments still call for attractive packs that can act as your 'silent salesman'. You may be able to make economy a virtue - but that will depend on your marketing profile and the precise positioning of your product.

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4.  Sourcing the right packaging is a nightmare. Where should I look?

Start with your nearest general packaging wholesaler (see Yellow Pages or search the internet), who will be able to supply most standard lines in convenient quantities. For less routine items, try the ads in specialist trade journals like Packaging News. Most trade journals carry ads for specialist packaging products that support their industries, so if you are in, say, the food business, try The Grocer. Solutions to many kinds of packaging problem can be bought off the shelf at websites such as Allpack. For point-of-sale items and display packs, try the Point of Sale Centre.

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5.  It's only economical if I order 10,000 cartons at a time. What can I do?

Part of the set-up costs for the production of non-standard boxes is a charge for making a special cutter, so it helps to keep the bill down if you pick a design that the box firm already has. Try to piggyback by latching on to a run that a carton maker is already planning for a big customer and adding your requirement onto the end. One answer to expensive colour printing bills is to buy standard boxes from stock and get a stick-on label printed with all the product pictures, diagrams and information you need.

Try a different packaging supplier and keep trying until you find one who can help connect you with somebody in a similar position. You will find it easier to order small quantities if you use stock (rather than tailor-made) packaging. You can also try overseas suppliers who might be more inclined to meet your needs. Alternatively, try to get your supplier to take phased payments - it does not solve the problem, but it will help ease the impact.

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6.  What cost-cutting ideas can I explore?

There are firms that sell recycled boxes (try Sadlers or Collins Cartons). If you only need modest quantities, make friends with your local electrical goods retailer, who will always have masses of boxes and sheet foam to get rid of. Screwed newspaper is as good as anything for loose fill, if tedious to use.

If you use contract packers for long or awkward runs, you will save money if you are able to plan ahead. Even large volumes can be handled inexpensively if you do not have strict deadlines and can afford to wait for your job to be slotted in at a time to suit the packer.

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7.  The labelling and safety regulations are so complicated. Where can I get help?

Skilled interpretation is needed, as getting the wrong information on a label can be dangerous, wasteful and illegal. Ask your local Trading Standards officer, who will be able to offer free help and informed advice. Trade associations can often give advice in more specialist areas (for example, matters concerning fire regulations for soft furnishings are handled by the Association of Master Upholsterers). Other authoritative sources of information include Smithers Pira and the British Standards Institution.

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8.  How can I stop breakages in transit?

Ask for advice from your carrier, who will be able to explain to you just how many hands your package may pass through. Spend an illuminating hour at a parcel depot, getting a realistic idea of the sort of treatment your packaging needs to be able to stand up to. Then plan or adapt your packaging accordingly. Dealing with breakages and returns is an expensive business, and it is usually far cheaper to invest in getting your packaging right. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Small items will be thrown (do not believe otherwise), so either make sure the pack is too big to suffer such handling or envelope the product in bubble wrap.
  2. Clearly mark packages containing glass or other fragile material.
  3. Pack around your products with poly beads, wood wool, shavings or crumpled newspaper, which is ideal for 'scrunch filling' cavities in standard boxes.
  4. Use corner pads and edge protectors and secure products on a foam or wooden base.
  5. Shrink wrap products such as jams or delicate components on open trays, so that everyone can see they are fragile.
  6. Do not forget to include a 'damage return packing slip', pointing out that claims will not be entertained unless you are notified within 48 hours.

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9.  How can I speed up the packing process?

Either subcontract it to professionals or become more adept and professional yourself. Skilled use of appropriate equipment is nine tenths of the battle. Be organised; set up your packaging as an efficient, mass production process. Invest in more expensive equipment (eg heavy-duty staplers, glue guns, a shrink wrapping machine) if it will speed up the process. If necessary, see whether you can change the packaging you use.

Be ruthless and determined. See packaging as a continuation of your manufacturing process - not as an optional add-on.

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10.  How can I pass the cost of packaging on to my customers?

Your customers are already paying indirectly for your raw materials, your staff payroll, your rent, your electricity and your delivery costs. Packaging expenses are merely another running-cost component that needs to be considered before setting your selling price. Well-designed packaging is unlikely to cost more than the packaging used by your competitors - unless it is notably better, in which case you can congratulate yourself for creating a valuable point of difference.

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