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Filling the Void

The last year of our lives has been marked out by many things: some sad and some just different. For many households one of those things is the parcel courier – every day, two or three parcels of different shapes and sizes arrive at the door.

While packaging has long been an area where I help clients, now my family has started to take an interest. It was the delivery of a single mug which started it off.

“What a waste,” they said looking at a small mug in a large box, “so bad for the environment”.

“What a waste of money”, I said, “think how much they could save if they’re sending 100 a day”.

Of course, we were all right and it took me back to some work I had done for a wholesale client a few years earlier. For every box which is over-sized, ‘voidfill’ needs to be used to fill the gaps and stop the contents moving around, and the bigger the spaces, the more voidfill is needed.

The Story

Different suppliers of packaging machinery had visited my client over the years and each one seemed to have been successful at selling in a different solution. The challenge the client faced was to know which one was most cost effective or represented their brand in the best way.

The first system the client had was the one they favoured for cost, because instead of buying materials, they were free – used cartons which the machine shredded. But on closer inspection, this needed one person to attend it full time and had higher rental, electricity and cleaning costs.

The second system used brown kraft paper, turning it into ‘sausages’ which could be used to fill the gaps while it was environmentally friendly, the cost of the paper was expensive.

Finally, there was an air pillow system, which the client felt was the most expensive to run. In fact, we were able to secure new contracts which made it the most cost-effective to use, with very little packaging weight because 98% of the volume was air.

The Challenge

How many businesses have the time to carry out a detailed comparison of different solutions which the sales people will each have promoted on the basis of saving costs? But there’s more.

  • Can you reduce the amount of packaging you use? Back to the single mug – a smaller box costs less, needs less voidfill, and is environmentally more sustainable. Do you have the right range of cartons?
  • Does the packaging you send out convey the right environmental message? Everyone knows how to recycle cardboard, but what is the likelihood that other materials which are compostable, or biodegradable will actually be disposed of in that way?
  • Will the packaging you select based on cost and sustainability be fit for purpose and protect the products you are sending to your customers? In my experience, more cartons are over-specified rather than under-specified, so that may provide a further opportunity.
  • Finally, there is the shipping cost. Parcels companies have always charged by weight, so less packaging may help a little. Increasingly they are also charging by volume, so a large box for a small item will be surcharged compared to the same goods in a smaller box.

Next Steps

My client was not unusual – like many other businesses, some processes are based on assumptions, and some of those assumptions are overdue for challenge. With operations teams often taken up with recruitment, training, and figuring how to dispatch more orders from the same workforce, a third party can offer time and neutrality. Add to that, our understanding of process, supply chain and sustainability, and it’s a conversation we are always happy to join.


Article by: Martin Wallis

As seen in Issue 8 of The Bottom Line