The aim of packaging is to ensure that a product reaches its end destination in a safe, recognisable and easy to handle manner. If packaging is inadequately designed, goods are damaged and useless.

As with many sectors, the furniture industry has long regarded packaging as a necessary evil. If a new product is required, a typical company will spend weeks on the design and creation of prototypes and overcoming potential production issues. Once the process is sorted and a launch date is fast approaching, thought may turn to the packaging of the item – a process which often begins and ends with the question ‘which of our existing pack designs is most suitable?’

However, within the past five years, a number of pressures have increased the importance of packaging. Cost should be a primary concern as companies pay for packaging a number of times. Suppliers charge your company for the packaging used on their products. If packaging comes from outside the UK, or will be passed to another stage in the packaging chain, the company may incur packaging waste obligations. Also, money is paid for the disposal of back door packaging waste and the purchase of virgin packaging to use on goods out.

In addition to the cost implications, customers are no longer willing to accept that a certain percentage of their products will inevitably be damaged.

Consequently, a study was undertaken into packaging optimisation in the furniture sector. The research was conducted on behalf of the Furniture Industry Environment Trust (FIET) by FIRA and was sponsored by Biffaward, a multi-million pound environmental fund which uses landfill tax credits donated by Biffa Waste Services. Key aims were to:

  • Identify the quantities, qualities and types of packaging used for specific product types.

  • Develop benchmarking information.

  • Analyse furniture return rates and their causes.

  • Generate best practice information on packaging optimisation.
  • Despite its focus upon the furniture industry, project results should also be of interest to timber companies who may be able to optimise their packaging on both goods-in and goods-out.

    The FIET project concentrated on packaging use in four sub-sectors: bedding, domestic, kitchen and office. Cardboard was the most important material – being used by 95% of companies. It was followed by plastic (83%), timber (39%), blankets (22%) and polystyrene (9%). The use of blankets was increasing due to the impact of the packaging regulations which encourage reusability.

    Companies spent an average of 1.45% of turnover on packaging materials and a further 0.7% on packaging labour. However, there was a tremendous variation in the total cost of packaging as a percentage of turnover, with a range from 0.1% to 5%.

    Half the equation

    Packaging spend is only one half of the equation as it needs to be considered in the light of product returns. These were split into two categories – returns for all reasons and those specifically due to damaged product.

    Returns for all reasons included incorrect product specification, missing components, lack of person to receive delivery, change of customer mind and damage. The average rate across all companies was 1.94% of all goods dispatched – with a range from 0.002% to 19%. Notably, by the time the goods had been sent from the manufacturer, to the retailer, to the customer and back again, they were invariably unsaleable.

    The average rate of damage return was 0.57% of all goods dispatched with a range from 0.001% to 3%. Those at the upper end of the scale were invariably selling through retailers – with this group of manufacturers incurring three times as many damage returns as those supplying direct.

    There was also a correlation between the type of transport and the return rate. Average damage returns for companies with their own fleet was 0.53%. This increased to 0.78% for those using sub-contractors. However, some organisations had an occasional need to use national carrier services, with whom the damage rates ranged from 7-30%.

    A number of best practice ideas originated from the study. Within the bedding companies, the best performer shrink-wrapped its mattresses in pre-made polythene bags which were heat sealed. The quality nature of the pocket sprung product meant that double mattresses were extremely heavy – and up to four men were used to load them into the delivery van. Other companies tried to save on labour, which meant that mattresses were sometimes dragged – leading to damage.

    Manual handling

    One of the larger producers of mattresses used metal stillages to store, transport and deliver its goods to a large customer. The system greatly reduced the amount of manual handling and the potential for damage – as well as requiring only a minimal amount of product packaging.

    The best performer within the domestic sector was a producer of high quality reproduction furniture. Chairs were blanket wrapped, whilst the surfaces of tables and cabinets were covered in paper backed jiffy foam and blanket wrapped. The foam was necessary to prevent any damage to polished surfaces due to the accumulation of grit on blankets or the marks that can be caused by blankets if goods are wrapped soon after hand polishing. Drawers and loose items were tied rather than locked to prevent the loosening of fittings due to transit movement.

    All products were delivered direct to the end user via the company’s own transport or a well respected local carrier. Again, attention was paid to the loading of vehicles with one or two men handling. Items were tied into place and the vehicles were not overfilled.

    Another manufacturer bought much of its packaging raw materials ‘ex-works’ from overseas when delivering furniture. Polythene was brought back from Denmark where it could be purchased one-third cheaper than in the UK.

    The best performing kitchen manufacturer specialised in 3D furniture and had a damage return of 0.3% with a packaging spend of 0.35% of turnover. The only packaging for the majority of the products consisted of shrink-wrapping on the doors and drawer fronts. Larger doors had edge protection and shrink-wrap. Additional cardboard packaging was taken out to site, when the goods were delivered to a construction area.

    It was interesting to note that the com-pany had a well designed loading bay, with each item situated on a tray on lines of rollers. Items were pushed off the rollers, slid across a floor inset with ball-bearings (perfectly safe to walk upon) and onto a conveyor which loaded the vehicle.

    Blanket wrapping

    The best office furniture manufacturer had a damage return rate of 0.01% of all goods out with a packaging spend of just 0.19% of turnover. Items were blanket wrapped in their 3D form with jiffy wrap used between any flat panels. All personnel had been trained on correct manual handling techniques and vehicles were carefully loaded with the furniture strapped inside. Some scrap timber was used to prevent strap marks on desks.

    The company had previously used total enclosure in cardboard, but found that the system was costing £8 per desk including labour compared to the current cost of £2.30 per unit. The organisation benefited from using its own transport, delivering to the end-user and installing. Occasional business had been undertaken through retailers – but again, the company insisted that it delivered to the end user.

    Overall, the project demonstrated a significant variation in packaging spend and performance across the furniture sector. In these days of increasing import penetration and reduced margins, the savings attributable to packaging optimisation can’t be ignored.