Dairies Use Glass to Make Nostalgic, Health-Conscious Appeals
By Tamara E. Holmes
While paper and plastic manufacturers duke it out over whose product holds the most virtues for the dairy industry, glass manufacturers are quietly enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly among small dairy farmers and creameries looking to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.  
“We’re seeing glass bottles more frequently on the shelves,” says Jacqui Barber, North American marketing director for O-I, a manufacturer of glass containers.
And that growth is expected to continue: Though glass makes up less than 1 percent of dairy packaging, according to Murray Bain, vice president of marketing for Stanpac Inc., glass packaging is predicted to grow 10 to 15 percent annually as more niche dairy farmers buy into the benefits.
Those advantages include the loyalty of consumers who value the nostalgic look of the bottles, as well as the improved taste and increase in freshness that is perceived to come with glass. In an O-I survey of 2,000 consumers last year, 18 percent said they would prefer to drink milk out of a glass bottle than a different type of package. 
Bottles offer a sense of nostalgia because customers recognize glass as being a quality item that has endured, says Mary Ellen Reis, president of Packnology, a Peacham, Vt.-based package consulting company, and spokesperson for the Glass Packaging Institute.
“They’re used to it, and they know it,” she says. “There is an acceptability with glass because it’s been used for thousands of years.”  
“It has to do with the premium image, the fact that it seems more fresh,” says Barber. “It keeps things colder longer and there’s really that whole issue around the purity of taste. Glass is completely inert so it never leeches flavor into the product that it holds.”
Glass benefits
Dairies and creameries have as many reasons for using glass packaging as their customers. Some do so out of social responsibility.
“We’re an environmentally minded company, and we’re able to reuse the bottles,” says Vivien Straus, vice president of marketing for the Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, Calif. Straus estimates that by using glass, the creamery has saved more than six million pounds of packaging from going into the landfill since it started doing business 11 years ago.
Gerald Byers, owner of Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pa., sells milk in both plastic and glass containers. He says that comparing the two in terms of sales potential, though, is like comparing apples to oranges, since each type of packaging has its own distinct customer.
“Customers that are concerned about taste and flavor prefer the glass,” he says. “People who are more concerned about [mobility] take the plastic.”
But perhaps the largest growth in glass dairy packaging comes from the small dairy farms that have discovered a higher profit margin by bottling and selling their own milk rather than selling to large distributors and cooperatives. Such farmers have found that the glass bottles make their products stand out on the shelves among the plastic and paperboard packaging that so many other dairy producers use.
“We’re a small family-run company, and we were trying to market our own product,” says Donnie Montgomery, part-owner of Homestead Creamery in Burnt Chimney, Va. “We were given the advice that if we wanted to be in a niche market, we needed to have something a little different. The glass packaging stands out from the other packaging out there.”
Stanpac’s Bain, agrees. “If you get somebody with 30 to 50 cows, they’re competing with someone that has 3,000 or 4,000 cows,” says Bain. “The glass package differentiates their product from a plastic jug or a carton of milk.”
The glass bottle also helps to emphasize a subtle perceived advantage that small dairies have over larger milk providers—the idea of freshness. “Many people believe that [small dairies’] products are fresher because they can bottle the milk in the morning from a milking that day or the previous evening, and the consumer can have it within 24 hours,” says Bain. According to O-I consumer research, freshness was one of the appeals of glass packaging.
Distribution hurdles
While glass packagers are lauding the gains being made in the market, there are still obstacles to widespread distribution of glass bottles, including those from retailers.
One of the biggest benefits of glass bottles is environmental, in the fact that they are refillable. In order for the refillable concept to work, though, retailers must have a system in place in which they can accept the returned bottles and get them back to manufacturers for reuse. But many retailers don’t have such systems in place and they don’t want to take on the cost and training challenges that would be necessary to do so.
“For some of the bigger retailers, it’s more hassle than they want to go through, and they’ll only do it if one of their big customers requires them to,” says Straus.
As a result, dairy providers that use refillable glass containers exclusively, such as the Straus Family Creamery, are locked out of many larger markets.
But gains are being made in other areas. Responding to the increased consumer focus on healthy eating, many grocery stores are adding high-end sections. These types of grocery stores are more likely to accept glass refillable containers; many health food stores will even seek out such dairy providers.
Stanpac has found another way to get around distribution challenges. The packaging company introduced a one-way glass bottle called the One Trip for markets that don’t have a bottle return system in place. “The consumer purchases the package and brings it home and puts it in their recycling as opposed to returning for a deposit,” Bain says.
It’s something that many of the small dairies are considering. While the Homestead Creamery currently uses refillable containers, the company’s owners have not ruled out using some one-way bottles in the future. “Customers wouldn’t have to take them back to the store, and the store wouldn’t have to return them to us,” says Montgomery. “That would be the advantage.”
Time and technology have been kind to the glass manufacturing industry in other ways.
“Glass manufacturers have become more proficient,” says Reis. “They’ve increased productivity, and they’ve been able to make stronger glass with less material with different production methods.”  
One result of the improved technology is glass bottles that weigh less than they did years ago. “With a lot of the old bottles, you’ll see a lot of glass sitting in the bottom,” says Reis.
Today, that’s no longer the case. Since weight is one of the drawbacks of using glass, the fact that bottles are lighter today than in the past gives a dairy brand more incentive to use glass packaging.
When it comes to the look of glass dairy bottles, though, there is not much variation outside of size, mainly because the bottles are used by manufacturers over and over again and, in some cases, to hold different products. Some manufacturers use different colors and have their logos stamped on the bottles for differentiation, but “if you make a change, it messes up packaging that is coming back in all the time,” says Bain.
The glass bottle is, in fact, more of a branding mechanism than the logo or any other way of distinguishing a bottle, says Mark Vance, vice president of marketing for Oberweis Dairy. “While the glass does add insulation benefits, and it protects the product longer, glass bottles, frankly, connote a higher quality product,” he says.
Oberweis’ bottles are not proprietary. “You’ll find similar glass half-gallon milk bottles in other retail outlets,” Vance says. But, he says, the fact that customers associate Oberweis with glass bottles and glass bottles with “high quality” leads them to perceive Oberweis as a high-quality company by default.
In Stanpac’s case, the one-way bottle has given the company an avenue to be a little more creative in its package design, since the bottles are designed to be used only once and the company doesn’t have to worry about reusing bottles for multiple substances.
As a result, Stanpac has designed the bottle to have more retro appeal. And brands that use the bottle for holiday drinks such as egg nog can decorate it with seasonal graphics; since these bottles are not recollected, the holiday graphics do not become outdated.
A niche audience
Despite the strides glass manufacturers have made, there are segments of the population that do not favor glass. People with young children, for example, might shy away from such packaging because of safety concerns that come with broken glass. Elderly people who can’t lift heavy objects or who suffer from arthritis might also be more likely to look to plastic or paper cartons. Glass is also not conducive to today’s mobile society, since people aren’t likely to pick up a glass bottle of milk and take it on-the-go.
And then there are those who are budget-conscious. “The customer who’s shopping for the 99 cent or $1.99 milk is not going to buy a glass bottle of milk,” says Stanpac’s Bain. “It’s a different market segment.”
But dairy providers that are turning to glass bottles say they are not necessarily looking for that customer segment. They believe that the narrowly defined market that welcomes glass bottles is a gold mine for manufacturers who can cater to it. “If we were a company that wanted to ship our milk all over the country, then glass bottles might be a problem,” says Straus. “Our focus is not about being something for everybody, we’re just somebody for a few people, and that’s OK with us.” BP
Where to go for more information...
Glass packaging. At O-I, contact Jacqui Barber at 419.247.1471  or Jacqueline.Barber@us.o-i.com.
Package development. At Packnology, contact Mary Ellen (Mel) Reis at 802.592.3208 or mel@packnology.com.
Refillable glass bottles. At Stanpac, contact Murray Bain at 905.957.3930 x229 or murrayb@stanpacnet.com.
Glass packaging. At the Glass Packaging Institute, call 703.684.6359 or visit www.gpi.org.