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COVID-19 and Plastic Packaging Procurement: One Year Later

TAGS: COVID-19
Photo credit: Cottonbro (left) and Sora Shimazaki – Pexels.com pexels-cottonbro-3951851-sora-shimazaki-5938385-combo.jpg
Tight supply of packaging components during the COVID-19 pandemic forced some companies to order different colored packaging, which could be confusing for consumers who are used to recognizing a favorite product by the brand's typical color scheme.
My kingdom for a plastic bottle! How the pandemic disrupted the perception and sourcing of plastic packaging, and how the supply chain has adapted.

Plastic has been vilified because of its polluting nature. Just think about the nation-sized floating islands of plastic in our oceans. But, then along came COVID-19 and, boom, plastic is back. Regardless of its negative impacts, the need for safety during the pandemic has not only made plastic packaging essential, but the increased demand for it is raising havoc with supply chains. 

Is the world ever ready for change?

For years, the assumption was that a global economy is a good thing. One of the ideas supporting this is that business could produce at lower prices and consumers would never have to worry about shortages. But what happens in a global emergency is supply chain interruption.

According to PlasticsToday, the US imports 1.1 billion worth of plastic bottles each year from China, Canada, and Mexico and 7.5 billion worth of plastic lids. With everybody focused on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), it’s having a negative impact on other consumer goods categories.

Brands are experiencing late deliveries and, in some cases, out-of-stock products. Pricing has increased from 5% to 10% as brands seek to find new vendors for their bottles. Lead times for packaging are doubling and tripling.

According to one brand owner, “First we were told packaging would be available in June 2021, now it’s being pushed to August by suppliers all around the United States.” To stay in business, this company has started to produce hand sanitizer, as plastic bottles for its beauty products are simply not available. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

 

What happens when you come up short? You improvise.

At FORCEpkg, we’ve been challenged with finding alternative plastic bottles, caps, and dispensers, just to keep our clients’ products on the shelf. One of my clients was not able to get the bottle they had been using for years and was forced to change from a black polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle to a clear PET bottle (in a slightly different shape, too).

On top of that, no pun intended, their trigger sprayer supplier(s) couldn’t provide the trigger in the same color they had used for more than a decade. Again, they were forced to change.

This is a national brand and, by third quarter of 2020, they went from a black bottle with a color trigger to a clear bottle with a white trigger. On the surface this may not seem like a big deal, but the labels needed to change too — what works visually on black may not look good on clear. Even small changes can leave consumers wondering, “Is this the same product I’ve been buying for years?”

This example is hardly an isolated incident. We saw other products/brands within the same categories making similar shifts in bottle, trigger, and cap colors. These shifts were not “on-brand,” so they were most likely driven by supply chain issues as well. I believe that supply chain challenges will be with us well into 2022.

We are in the final stages of a major brand and packaging redesign for one of our clients, and we are developing a plan for a two-stage rollout. First stage will be with new graphics and white triggers and caps later this year. Then stage two will be first quarter 2022 with brand-color triggers and caps. That said, as we get more specific information, I’m starting to think this may actually look more like Q2 2022 or even Q3 2022 until we get back to pre-COVID supply chain normalcy.

 

What did we learn from all of this?

For me, it’s been how to balance cost, timing, and sourcing. How can I help consumer product companies navigate shortages and use design to help them solve problems — both visually and structurally? Sourcing from one region of the world or one country is probably a bad strategy long term. Also, having some regional or “Made in the USA” sources in the vendor/supplier pool is a good idea.

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