It’s only a year ago that the food and drink industry was reporting a slowing of growth and falling number of users of online grocery ordering (Retail Insight Network). Fast forward a year and the situation could not be more different. Of course, no-one could have predicted that the world would be in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s an illustration, albeit an extreme one, of how important it is for businesses to add flexibility into their operations.

Dramatic growth of online grocery sales

In March, grocery sales grew by 20.6% and alcohol by 22% overall, while online sales of groceries grew by 13% – a combination of panic buying and the fact that we’re all now cooking and eating our three meals a day at home. In the early days of the crisis, with many supermarket shelves stripped bare, an increasing number of consumers turned to smaller, local food and drink suppliers to buy their groceries.

From local farm shops and delicatessens to restaurant wholesalers, there are an awful lot of businesses currently finding new customers and new outlets for their goods, but it comes with a great deal of stress and pressure. The change in consumer buying habits is posing some serious challenges for large-scale grocers and small independents alike.

As well as having to rapidly develop and improve their online ordering capability, they’re also having to work out ways to efficiently and effectively get goods packed and delivered to the consumer. But, with early indications that 64% of consumers will continue to buy online after the pandemic, it may well be that some of the measures that businesses put in place now will become permanent.

Adapting and scaling your food and drink packing operation

So, how do go about not only, perhaps, setting up a packing operation from scratch, but also making sure that whatever changes you make now aren’t going to leave you adrift once some semblance of normality resumes. Our packaging experts have a number of suggestions that are already helping businesses to adapt and scale their food and drink distribution operations sustainably – while also keeping an eye on cost and environmental impact.

First things first: what type of packaging is right for your business?

This is particularly key for those businesses who don’t usually sell and/or deliver direct to the public. There are several things to consider:

  • If you are packing chilled or frozen products, what is the delivery timeframe? Maintaining the ambient temperature of the products is vital if produce is to remain fresh
  • Packing breakables such as jars and bottles will require some sort of cushioning and perhaps void fill to stop items moving around and becoming damaged during transit
  • While, depending on what is being packed, off-the-shelf packaging or one-size-fits-all materials will work well for some, for others it can result in unexpected costs through breakages, higher transport costs or slower throughput on the packing line
  • Will you be making your own deliveries or using a third party? If the latter, it’s important to consider both security and presentation of packages on arrival with the consumer
  • Don’t forget customer experience and environmental impact. Aim to use packaging which, as well as being effective, is easy for the consumer to recycle, re-use or dispose of

The best way to ensure you’re using the best option for your business is to seek advice from a packaging company. As well as being able to recommend packaging materials, any company worth its salt will also be able to advise you how to optimise the efficiency of your operation, whether through the set-up of your warehouse and packing line, use of machinery, or by offering stock holding services.

Managing storage of packaging

At a time when food and drink businesses need to maximise their stockholding, the last thing they want to be doing is giving valuable space over to storing packaging materials. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways around this:

  • Stockholding

Ask your packaging supplier if they offer stockholding and next-day delivery services. That way you can pay for your packaging upfront to secure a good price and then call it off as you need it. There will be a minimum order and delivery threshold, and it may not be available for all products, but it will likely work out cheaper than trying to find your own storage.

  • On-demand void fill and cushioning

If space is tight then on-demand packaging is the way to go. There is a range of air and paper options available, both of which are also environmentally friendly. Taking up minimal storage space, the air sacs are inflated on demand by an easy-to-use mobile kit. For the paper option, layers of kraft paper pass through a converter to be turned into a range of void fill and cushioning – there is also an option that converts paper into insulating pads to create environmentally friendly packaging material for packing chilled or even frozen goods (see below).

And because staff don’t need to keep replenishing their stocks of void fill and cushioning materials, movement around the packing area can be minimised thereby making it easier for staff to maintain social distancing.

Order fulfilment: keeping up with demand without losing quality

When you’re racing against the clock to get orders packed and out of the door, it’s easy for quality to begin to slip, whether it be too much or too little packaging or cartons not sealed properly. Low staff levels and the need to maintain social distancing will make this issue more likely and it is one that can begin to cost your business through damaged goods and damaged reputation.

One of the best ways to increase efficiency and ensure staff are able to stay safe and socially distance in this current climate, is by automating part of the packing process. Antalis offers a range of flexible payment plans as well as the option to rent equipment such as case sealers, carton erectors, pallet wrappers, strappers, and kit that produces void fill and cushioning on demand. Rental is a great way to add some serious momentum to your packing while you need it but can be returned once demand reduces. It can be a cost-effective approach, particularly for smaller operations, when coping with the usual seasonal peaks in demand, too.

Keep control of the environmental impact of your packaging

Lastly, it’s important to remember that alongside the growth in demand for products and materials to pack them, there will also be a rise in packaging waste. There was already a big push to reduce the environmental impact of packaging prior to the current pandemic and it’s something we shouldn’t lose sight of now. Here are a few suggestions of how you can scale up your operations without scaling up damage to the planet:

  • Look for packaging that is recyclable and or has recycled content
  •  Minimise pack sizes – as well as using less material, they also cost less to transport
  • Consider bespoke packaging – it can be designed to tackle a whole host of criteria to limit environmental impact, such as optimising product protection and minimising materials used. While it may be more expensive upfront, it can save a whole load of expense elsewhere in your operation. Antalis’s Smart Packaging Centre is now up and running in virtual form. Despite not being able to meet in person, the Virtual Smart Packaging Centre means our team of packaging technologists are still available to discuss ideas, develop solutions to your challenges and run live demos of pack designs.

For more information and advice on how to flex and grow your packaging operations to match consumer buying habits now and beyond, contact For more information and advice on how to flex and grow your packaging operations to match consumer buying habits now and beyond, contact our experts.

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