The stand-up pouch (SUP) is positioned to be the packaging of choice for more consumer products, with billions of items expected to transition to SUP packaging in the next four years. Pouch popularity has been steadily progressing over the past decade as manufacturers and retailers have enticed consumers with innovative SUP product packaging, especially in the food, beverage and pet food categories.
Along the way, consumer goods brands and retailers have come to appreciate the positive impact of SUPs on their bottom lines as they optimize shelf and warehouse space.
U.S. demand for SUPs is expected to grow by about 7 percent per annum to reach nearly 24 billion units in 2018, according to “The U.S. Market for Stand-Up Pouches to 2018,” a report by PCI Films Consulting. The firm’s research found that the growth pace for SUPs is twice the rate of anticipated volume growth for the U.S. flexible packaging market as a whole.
Why is the SUP such a hot packaging category? Brands and retailers will find three key drivers behind SUPs’ increasing market share: consumer-centricity, operational efficiency and sustainability.
FITTING BETTER INTO CONSUMERS’ LIVES
Consumer brands and their packaging suppliers are passionate about improving convenience for consumers and evolving with ever-mobile lifestyles. Brands are partnering with their flexible packaging suppliers to develop new SUP designs to increase their brand impact and the customer experience. Their efforts have resulted in greater customer acceptance of SUPs.
SUPs meet the challenges of moms with young children who need to ferry treats and drinks to daycare, soccer games and playdates. They appeal to athletes of all ages who need quick refreshment on the field. They enable the busy executive to stow snacks for the next “power break” on a business trip. SUPs are convenient for the couple planning a picnic in the park or spontaneous cocktails on the cul-de-sac.
A great deal of the growth in SUP demand can be traced to a stronger focus on consumer-centric design. For example, slimmer pouch designs fit well into refrigerator side doors or in the limited pantry space available to younger families.
Food brands and retailers also are more attuned to the advantages of SUPs to consumers who are watching their weight. Brands are delivering more portion-controlled food and drinks in single-serve pouches so that end users can consume a precise amount of calories and then easily dispose of the empty pouch. Other SUP designs allow consumers to eat or drink a portion of the pouch’s contents, reseal it, and enjoy the remainder later. Both types of products are helpful for weight management, a major U.S. health focus.
Leading SUP suppliers to brands are focused on continuous improvement and innovation of every component of the pouch design. In recent years, there has been a major emphasis on closures, including sliders, zippers, spouts with caps, and other mechanisms that enable the pouch to be resealed and stored for future use. The closure is a key consumer-centric element because it delivers clear convenience. Users do not have to store unused food in plastic containers as they might have to do after opening a food can. Resealing the SUP preserves freshness and decreases food odors. For example, a resealed pouch stifles the smell associated with storing moist pet foods in the refrigerator. In addition, the latest easy-tear pouch openings provide relief from what can be a painful struggle to twist off glass jar caps for those with arthritis.
Other consumer-centric SUP design enhancements include new types of spouts and funnels, which enable consumers to pour everything from spaghetti sauce to wine with less spillage. The SUP design is also transforming the baby food category, as innovative new spouts on single-serve versions are allowing toddlers to easily consume the contents without fuss or mess.
IMPROVED EFFICIENCIES IN LOGISTICS, MANUFACTURING
SUP demand also is propelled by the operational efficiencies pouches provide across the supply chain. For the retailer, the SUP shape lends itself to fitting more overall packages on shelves for optimal profit per square inch of selling space. Some retailers have renovated their shelving to better accommodate and showcase SUPs.
Drawing the consumer’s eye to those shelves is a challenge made easier by the base materials and broad printing possibilities for SUPs. Brands can leverage high-impact graphics on pouches at a caliber not readily achievable on some other packaging media. Most SUPs are made of laminated films, which provide a canvas for brands to create very colorful and engaging imagery. For instance, they can combine matte and high-gloss finishes for layered and textured effects on the package.
One of the greatest operational efficiencies associated with SUPs is reaped before the pouches reach the shelf — in logistics and warehousing. Much less space is needed to store empty pouches in the brand’s production facilities or warehouses. Empty SUPs can be compressed and stored by the thousands on pallets or in cartons. It’s also more efficient to transport both empty and filled pouches because there is less need for packaging material and special containers to protect SUPs as compared with protective measures necessary for shipping empty or filled glass containers or metal cans. Moreover, manufacturers do not need to transport or store lids and caps for rigid containers.
There also are operational efficiencies associated with the two primary types of SUP manufacturing processes:
1. form/fill/seal 2. fill/seal using pre-made pouches
With the first option, or f/f/s, the brand forms the pouch on its own production line from pre-printed film supplied by a vendor. This process can be ideal for brands who want to manage pouch manufacturing in-house for single-use applications such as basic tear-open pouches with no closure device.
The second SUP manufacturing option, involving the use of pre-made pouches, is taking the lion’s share of the market for several reasons. Machinery for filling and sealing pre-made pouches now has faster line speeds. Also, the use of pre-made pouches allows for greater flexibility and diversity of closures, spouts, sliders, handles and other pouch design elements. It would be difficult for brands to set up their own f/f/s lines to accommodate an array of sophisticated pouch features in-house. Instead, they turn to suppliers who provide specialized converting services to tailor pouches to their product specifications. Then the brand can focus on filling and sealing the pouches and shipping the goods to market.
Use of pre-made pouches also relieves the brand from managing quality concerns and material scrap associated with f/f/s pouch formation.
As the per-unit cost of pouches decreases, brands are more willing to make the capital investment necessary to install SUP filling and sealing lines, further accelerating the move to SUP packaging. Compared with production lines for rigid containers, SUP lines are more flexible and configurable, with less retooling and set-up time needed to accommodate smaller run sizes and change-offs in pouch sizes and features.
LESS ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
Another major driver of SUP demand is the sustainability factor. Consumer brands and their packaging suppliers are collaborating to continually improve sustainability and social responsibility. Both have social responsibility mandates and green goals, and when they work to align those objectives, they can deliver a four-fold win — for the earth, the consumer, the brand and the packaging vendor. Strong supplier partners will evaluate their customers’ sustainability criteria and work to match a packaging solution to the brands’ objectives.
SUPs can be a good match to meet many sustainability goals. With their sleek profile, pouches may create less landfill content and require less overall material in manufacturing than some other forms of packaging. Pouches also reduce the need for material and energy used to manufacture packaging labels, caps and lids.
Again, the environmental footprint for transporting SUPs can be a lot smaller than that associated with transporting various types of rigid containers. For example, much less packing material is needed to transport empty pouches versus the amount required to ship empty glass jars. The same applies to filled SUPs versus filled rigid containers. Brands do not need as many corrugated containers and other materials to protect their products. They can use lighter-weight shipping containers and, ultimately, less fuel.
Most SUPs are made of multilayer laminates that are difficult to recycle. Development of monolayer SUP materials that are either biodegradable or compatible with mainstream recycling programs is underway, but they may be some time away from reaching the market.
In conclusion, brands and packaging suppliers are working together to evaluate pouch materials, features and functionality to be of the greatest value and use to consumers and their evolving lifestyles. This consumer-centric approach, combined with operational efficiencies and environmental benefits, promises to keep SUPs on the packaging map for brands and consumers for years to come.