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Corner posts protect clubstore loads

The paperboard corner posts can be made in assorted profiles and sizes to afford compression strengths exceeding 6,000 lb. That's critical for Costco's loads, which must be stacked 2-high.

From large appliances to small, plush zebras and everything in between, if it can be stacked on a pallet, it's at Costco Wholesale Corp.'s warehouse clubs. Headquartered in Issaquah, WA, the $36-billion international retailer has warehouse club operations in eight countries. Club members can shop for a bounty of selected items, many in bulk quantities, at special prices. Because merchandising is the lifeblood of Costco, and its business is centered around its warehouse operations, the stores and distribution centers must be able to handle hundreds of pallet loads of merchandise at any given time. The loads simply can't buckle or shift under pressure. All of the loads Costco accepts must now be stackable, two-high, without buckling, toppling or crushing.

That's why it's impressed with Sonopostw technology from Sonoco Products as an answer to protecting loads entering its doors. The recently developed corner post for pallets provides durability and stacking strength Costco says loads need while offering distinct product-display advantages.

Instead of the straight angles found with conventional corner protectors, the Sonoposts are curved in complex or standard shapes and profiles. Posts can be produced in a number of shapes and sizes, depending on the application's needs. The post's center void fills dead space and stabilizes a product inside the load.

Bulk-packed loads can be vulnerable to damage, and should a pallet load be overpacked, it could possibly arrive with broken or torn products hidden from view. It's not until retailers cut through a load that they find unsellable products. What's more, clubstores such as Costco are increasingly asking for "display-ready" pallets that can go into a warehouse or distribution center without denting or collapsing, so the merchandise can go straight from a truck to a rack or the selling floor. But besides being display-worthy, the pallets have to be free of damage, so that products can be seen and quickly accessed. And then there's the bottom line: squeeze every cent out of packaging through the entire production and distribution chain.

Costco says it wanted to eliminate any excess secondary packaging and packaging inconsistencies wherever possible, on loads coming in and out of its distribution center depots and clubstores.

Sonoco produces Sonoposts at four different locations using100-percent-recycled paperboard. Sonoposts look like long, hollow tubes of solid paperboard that are shaped into special profiles to hug corners and protect edges. The engineered corner posts provide a maximum compression strength exceeding 6,000 lb per pallet load, delivering superior crush-resistance and stacking strength, yet they allow a load to be built with minimal secondary packaging, corrugated shipping cases, foam pads and dividers. The posts act as an external skeleton, bracing and supporting the bulk load and securing it into a tight unit. Used corner posts can be bailed with existing paper scrap, according to Sonoco.

With the help of a clear film stretch wrap of the user's choice, depending on the type of load to be packed, the pallet load assembly can include a set of the geometrically engineered Sonopost corner posts, the pallet itself, and if desired, a corrugated slipsheet to protect the base of the load and a top cap. Sonoco says it can recommend and supply specific corrugated materials and will soon offer Sonopope display systems and Sonobasee and Sonoviewe display packaging for larger loads, such as washing machines and other heavy-duty appliances.

Berry impressed
Costco endorsed the Sonopost technology last year when it was developing what it calls its Structural Packaging Specifications and it now suggests use of Sonopost technology to vendors for incoming merchandise shipments. So far, reports Costco packaging manager Christine Andreychuk, more incoming product loads incorporate Sonoposts. "Previous to writing the packaging specifications last summer, we didn't have written, corporate packaging standards," Andreychuk says. "In July, 2002, we sent out mandatory packaging requirements to our suppliers, with a deadline of January 1, 2003, to comply. Meeting these packaging specifications will help us reduce our overall system costs and bring greater value to our members."

Wyman's blueberry juice cartons are tray-packed and stretch-wrapped. Four corner posts improve strength and guard edges.

Objectives also include reducing damage and waste and labor and handling costs and improving safety as well as productivity in stocking, receiving and front-end checkout, she says. "The specs define minimum stacking strength requirements for a pallet load of product. We have frequently offered suppliers economical recommendations, such as the use of load-bearing corner posts like the ones from Sonoco."

Soon after receiving the specifications, Costco vendor Jasper Wyman & Son, Milbridge, ME, considered the largest processor of wild blueberries in the U.S. and a premium processor of frozen berries and beverage products, began using Sonoposts for its shipments of wild blueberry juice drink sold at Costco clubstores and copacked by Steuben Foods in Elma, NY. Steuben aseptically packs Wyman's wild blueberry juice in 32-oz resealable drink cartons from Tetra Pak that are filled on a Tetra Pak line. Twelve juice cartons are unitized in vibrantly offset-printed corrugated open-sided display trays from Southern Container. Sixty trays are loaded on a 40 x 48-in. pallet, totalling 720 cartons.

Each load is now protected with four Sonoposts made of .018 uncoated kraft paperboard. The posts in Steuben's case measure 32.5 in. long, 6 in. wide, 4/8 in. thick and have 3-in.-long legs. Hollow in the middle, the posts brace and reinforce the loads so they can each be stacked two-high, a Costco mandate, says Frederick Robinson, director of corporate quality at Wyman.

The loads of blueberry juice cartons each weigh about 1,700 lb, he says, well within the load-bearing capabilities of four Sonoposts. Steuben adds a corrugated slipsheet to the base of each load and then stretch-wraps the loads in clear film (from various sources).

Robinson says the Sonoposts were an additional packaging component for the juice drink loads. But without them, the loads couldn't be stackable two-high. "We get more stackability and better usage of space. We wouldn't be able to get these loads to Costco as easily if we didn't use the Sonoposts. We haven't used them long enough to have a specific gauge on damage reductions, but Steuben indicates they provide needed structural strength for stacking," he says.

Light but strong
Andreychuk points out that Costco's new specs state that packaging be engineered to comply with ISTA pre-shipment tests 1a and 3e, as well as other government regulations and freight-carrier rules.

Wyman and Steuben agreed that the Sonoposts were a wise choice to comply with the specs. Engineered to meet the International Safe Transit Association 3e testing protocol for unitized loads, the Sonoposts can be placed on the corners of both standard- or specially-sized pallets.

Says Wyck Newberry, bulk packaging account manager for Sonoposts, the new pallet protectors are each designed to have a safety factor of four for a 1,500-lb load, and are able to handle transportation distances greater than 500 miles while maintaining long-term stacking integrity in humid conditions of more than 90 percent. Newberry says that geometry creates the posts, which can be specially shaped for specific pallet applications with complex profiles that accommodate a horizontal brace, adding clamping protection, for example, or a simple bend that can add vertical strength.

"The posts can lower material costs and improve yield by as much as 30 percent, because more loads can be stacked on top of each other, with less material," he tells PD. "Products are visible through a load, and the posts' load-bearing properties allow all kinds of loads to be stacked on top of each other that couldn't be before. The combination of the posts with stretch film now do everything a corrugated case can do to bear [the brunt of] the load."

Since a single Costco clubstore can receive 480 to 500 pallets of product each day, protection in-shipment and during handling is critical, Andreychuk sums up. "We told Sonoco some of the challenges our suppliers were having in meeting our requirements, and they suggested the load-bearing posts. We're beginning to see the changes being made in our warehouses and are now meeting our packaging objectives."

More information is available:

Corner post technology: Sonoco Protective Packaging, 615/262-3837. Circle No. 270.

Drink cartons: Tetra Pak, Inc., 847/955-6000. Circle No. 271.

Display trays: Southern Container Corp., 800/962-9000. Circle No. 272.

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