Impacts of Excessive Packaging and How to Improve Transportation Logistics

When was the last time you ordered a product online and received it in a package that seemed unusually large for such an item? For us, it was nearly every gift ordered over the holiday season. Why did our car key fob’s replacement battery – literally the size of a quarter – arrive in a box, within a box, large enough to ship one of the trending Stanley Quencher Tumblers? It’s an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed and can seemingly be corrected, over time, via better data and smarter logistics.

With advances in shipping processes and technology, one would think the most cost-effective, accurately sized packaging would be at the forefront of parcel-delivery engineering, yet “void fill” remains an ongoing issue. Throughout the industry, “void fill” refers to the excess space separate from the product within its shipping parcel, and surrounding filler materials. According to some estimates, void fill accounts for up to 40-50+% of a package’s interior. That’s a lot of extra space and material, a problem that seems to have a simple solution – use a smaller box – but it’s a bit more complicated than it appears at a glance.

Packaging problems plague both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) commerce categories, but B2C or direct-to-consumer items are usually the biggest offenders. Smaller merchants such as mom-and-pop companies aren’t typically packaging experts; they choose from premade boxes and bags that aren’t necessarily best suited to the items they’re selling, but it’s what is available without costly customized packaging and high-tech equipment. Large retailers experience different challenges but ultimately face the same dilemmas with rightsized packaging. According to John Moore, founder of IQpack, which is an Indiana-based company dedicated to preparing and managing item master and logistics data, packaging problems stem from a lack of master item data, specifically shipment sizes and weight, and algorithms designed around flawed data. Per Moore, ​​”The cost of bad data is enormous, especially with the dimensionalization of freight.” Thus, accurate information is a key component of efficient packaging.

Unnecessarily large boxes and filler aren’t the only factors contributing to high shipping costs for retailers. Inefficient packaging is costly not just due to excessive materials, but largely because of wasted space. From manufacturer to merchant, space costs money. Working with a third-party logistics (3PL) company can help ensure the best services and can help keep costs down, but space is space. From air cargo to truckload capacity, improper packaging impairs effective packing, meaning containers aren’t as full as they could be. Thus, companies overpay for space that isn’t truly optimized. Also, aircraft and delivery trucks are huge sources of CO2 emissions via the use of fossil fuels, which we now know are harmful to the environment. Oversized packaging contributes to emissions creating the need for more physical containers and fuel to move the same amount of freight through the supply chain.

Improper packaging creates environmental concerns due to inefficient transport, but let’s not forget about the actual parcels themselves. Even when recycled materials are used, not all packaging is sustainably sourced. Cardboard boxes (also referred to as OCC – Old Corrugated Containers) are the “most recycled packaging materials in the United States,” according to the American Forest & Paper Association, but there are still a number of sources and byproducts of cardboard production. Yet another factor to consider in addition to CO2 emissions.

With all this information, it’s clear that solving the problems caused by poor and excessive packaging will take time. But there are tools and help available. Retailers of all sizes could benefit from enlisting a consultancy to create and maintain item data in order to correctly prepare packaging materials. With accurate item data and shipping sizes, algorithms used to select parcels will become more precise, reducing the need for so much void fill and material waste. Working with a 3PL company can also help with transportation logistics and costs and can only become more beneficial as companies slowly shift to better, smarter packaging. The need is real, and while some retailers might not see the value of an investment in proper package sizes and data right away, accuracy will eventually reduce the cost of shipping and pay for itself, especially when handled by industry experts.

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