A Q&A with Michael Kuebler, technical director at Smithers Pira.

Packaging Strategies: What sort of items are consumers buying more frequently through e-commerce?

Kuebler: At this point, most consumer products have entered the e-commerce space. Through company managed e-commerce sites to selling through online retailers, most CPG manufacturers have found the online retailing channel a nice supplement to traditional channels. Electronics, clothes and books are still the traditional high volume items, but personal care products, home items and food are growing quickly.

PS: Why should CPGs use testing for their package lifecycle during the distribution chain in regard to e-commerce?

Kuebler: The same reasons apply to the e-commerce channel when compared with traditional sales channels. Ultimately, CPGs need to drive customer satisfaction by providing their products in packaging that is not only attractive and accessible, but protective enough that the product inside arrives undamaged. At the same time, sustainability and cost-avoidance initiatives can counterbalance the protection provided by the packaging. You need to find the optimal level of packaging – and that’s where testing comes in.

The e-commerce supply chain presents a much wider range of touchpoints that can affect packaging. Multiple methods of transit, handling methods, packing and repacking, multiple distribution centers and last-mile deliveries all present potential damage challenges. In addition, packaging damage can be a costly issue for CPGs due not only to replacement costs, but retailer handling fees and the risk of being removed from e-commerce sites because of consistent damage problems.

PS: What is the testing looking for?

Kuebler: Package or distribution testing is focused on predicting the effects of shipping, so that inadequacies can be fixed before field issues occur. Understanding the supply chain and multiple handling environments, we can develop testing protocols that closely match the real world conditions. Typically, companies can benchmark different packaging configurations to verify performance under different environmental conditions, drops, compression and vibration scenarios. This allows them to dial in the best packaging solution for the situation.

In the case where a damage issue is reported in the field, testing can be designed to replicate the conditions that a package sees, so that corrections can be made. Sometimes, even small changes to handling practices in the supply chain can cause issues. 

PS: How does the testing help CPGs to create a better package for e-commerce?

Kuebler: Ultimately, the goal is to find the issue before an end customer does. This obviously leads to lower overall shipping costs and a better impression of the brand for the consumer. In addition, truly digging into the details of supply chain conditions may provide CPGs with opportunities to reduce packaging costs. A scientific approach to testing gives packaging engineers a higher degree of confidence in their packaging designs.

PS: Are there specific standards or package testing protocols that brand owners should be using to validate their packaging?

Kuebler: The International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) develops a wide variety of distribution testing standards for many supply chain scenarios. Currently, there are a couple of options for CPGs relative to testing standards that could be used.

The ISTA 3A standard can be used as a screening tool for packages intended for e-commerce transit. These test methods involve shock testing, vibration testing and drop testing at relevant atmospheric conditions.

Smithers Pira is working closely with ISTA and Amazon.com on the development of two new e-commerce specific standards that can be used to more closely evaluate packages.

  • Project 6-AMAZON.COM-SIOC, Ships in Own Container (SIOC) for Amazon.com Distribution System: This draft standard covers shipments of products to an Amazon.com distribution center and then directly to the client without being reboxed.
  • Project 6-AMAZON.COM-Over Boxing, e-commerce Fulfillment for Parcel Delivery Shipment: This draft standard covers products that are delivered to an Amazon.com distribution system but then reboxed and potentially shipped with other products in a larger box.

Both draft standards use industry data to understand the supply chain and suggest various testing methods such as vibration, environmental conditioning and drops to predict performance. More information on the standards can be found on the Smithers Pira (smitherspira.com) or ISTA (ista.org) websites.

It should also be noted that not every product or scenario is the same. In some cases, custom testing protocols can be designed after better understanding the full path that a package takes along the supply chain.

PS: What challenges are most prevalent when comparing the e-commerce supply chain to a normal brick and mortar retail supply chain?

Kuebler: The most common challenge or difference in the supply chain stems from the variability in shipping hazards resulting from the consolidation of multiple items in one shippable unit (e.g. overboxing).  With the conventional brick and mortar supply chain, the shippable unit is a case (tertiary package) of multiple products in the primary packaging. This provides more protection in the supply chain and limits instances of handling before it reaches the consumer. For e-commerce, that individual package could be shipped by itself or repacked with other items, increasing the likelihood of damage.

Mike Kuebler is responsible for all technical and commercial aspects for the Smithers Pira distribution testing business in the U.S. and has over 17 years of experience in this sector. He is an expert in utilizing standard simulation tools, as well as understanding when a non-standard approach should be used to deliver a more valuable solution. Kuebler has previous experience in a range of positions, including laboratory technician, project engineer, laboratory manager and now technical director. As an expert in transportation testing and simulation protocols, he is able to help clients predict shipping results, determine root cause of shipping damage and support sustainability and cost reduction goals related to moving goods through the supply chain.

For more, go to smitherspira.com.