Since the recent trial launch of its square soup cans in two of its UK stores, the packaging industry has been keenly observing proceedings at supermarket group J. Sainsbury's. The retailer made the bold move to trial the new tin format in an effort to improve logistics efficiency. To find out more about the project FoodProductionDaily.com spoke to Sainsbury's packaging innovation manager Terry Robins.
"So far feedback from the trial has been extremely positive," said Robins. "All the stocks for our test cans sold out within the first week and there has been absolutely no negative feedback about the cans so far. In fact a lot of people thought it was a great idea, but trying to gauge whether or not they were taken by the novelty factor or if they genuinely liked them as an alternative to round cans will take longer to determine.
"Of course the main incentive for Sainsbury's is the fact that the cans bring about substantial improvements for our storage logistics, which in turn bring about cost savings. We estimate that the square cans save around 20 per cent in shelf storage space, which means that there is more room on the shop floor, the storage bays and for the transportation process. As you can imagine all of this translates into fairly substantial savings in our operating costs."
The project itself has been relatively straight forward, but that is not to say it has been without its challenges.
"The biggest hurdle to overcome with the square can production process was the labelling. The problem here was two-fold, firstly the shape of the can. The can's sides are in fact not perfectly straight all the way down. We had to include a small step at the base of the can to improve rigidity, which in turn presented a hurdle for the labelling process.
During the labelling process of the round can, it is simply rolled down the labelling machinery and picks up the label as it goes along. Obviously with the square can this cannot be done and the collar further exacerbates the problem. Our solution was to choose shrink wrap labelling, which has proved to be very successful, but obviously has also added to the costs. Having said that, this labelling solution may not be the final one. There is the possibility that we might change the dimensions of the can's base collar in an effort to go back to paper labels, or another less expensive type of labelling."
So, why was it that soup was chosen as the product to test out the new cans?
"Quite simply the soup was chosen to test out the square cans because a liquid is easier to package in a can this shape. With the cylindrical shape, the centre of the can and the outside is equidistant. However when it comes to a square can this is obviously not the case. Put simply the can's shape means that a liquid is easier to retort when you are using a square can."
"The can itself was originally designed by Corus steel. They brought the idea to me personally, and I adapted it to the requirements for the project. Indeed, it is Corus who have produced the cans for this trial."
This particular project is by no means unique though. Sainsbury's has been breaking ground with its food packaging innovations for some years. Renowned for their progressiveness, Robins' believes that his position as packaging innovations manager is unique in European retailing.
"I started off as a food technologist and transferred over to packaging some 17 years ago. I then became a fellow of the Packaging Institute and now I also write a regular column on the subject. I have worked for Sainsbury's for 30 years and consider it to be one of the most innovative food retailers around. We actually have an innovations division, which entails representatives from various departments, including myself. When we work on new packaging projects, it is a combined effort, involving every aspect of the company's development team. It's a very thorough process.
"Currently one of the biggest areas I am working on is bio-degradable packaging. We recently launched starch packaging, and we have also developed cellulose packaging in collaboration with UK company, UCB - Films. I am currently working on a number of projects to develop bio degradable packaging, but obviously they are of the utmost secret while they are in the development stages, so I cannot discuss them."
"What really excites me about this job is the fact that it is so diverse. There are so many different aspects to it that all have to be given careful consideration when developing any new form of packaging. I have to consider the packaging material, the design aspect and, of course, I have to give very careful consideration to the type of food that is being packaged. It is a real mish-mash that includes a number of scientific disciplines, which all involve phenomenally extensive levels of research.
Meeting recycling requirements
"On top of that there all the legal requirements which all have to be carefully observed. This involves everything from the safety of the packaging to meeting increasingly tough EU packaging recycling directives. In fact that is one of the biggest challenges that I face right now - trying to meet these regulations, which are very complex.
"Presently we are in a kind of transitory period with regards to package recycling objectives. On the one hand we have got the EU rulings, and on the other we have all the individual laws, which vary tremendously from country to country. Obviously all of this makes the implementation process very complex.
"In my opinion the industry needs greater incentives to fulfil the current EU directives on recycling. Currently, the way the recycling levels are being implemented is very costly to the industry and yet we are not being given any real incentives to help us achieve them."