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Don't crush that cup!

James River relies on air-filled pillow pouches to keep fragile paper cup and plate sales samples in pristine condition for presentations to major accounts.

Steve Slye has an unusual mandate. As manager of paper giant James River's Business Services Department he must supply a steady stream of custom-packed samples of James River's Dixie® disposable cups plates and other products to sales reps and distributors nationwide. The samples are used to make sales presentations to major accounts. The catch: the fragile products must arrive in perfect condition. Dog-eared bent creased or crushed product samples make a bad impression and potentially lose sales. It's not an easy task according to Slye. He has tried just about every form of protective packaging to mitigate damage to the vulnerable products. "Our sales reps were complaining reshipments were high and packaging staff morale was slipping" says Slye. "More importantly we were losing business." About two years ago Slye's department in Easton PA began using a void-fill product consisting of a special plastic bag that's shipped flat and inflated with air with an inflator at the time of packaging. Supplied by Sealed Air's Packaging Products Div. (Saddlebrook NJ) the bag succeeded in locking samples in place providing ample cushioning during shipment. Complaints from reps dropped 75%. "And it has cut drastically our need to reship orders" says Slye. The bags have reduced material labor and shipping costs and freed up three pallets' worth of warehouse space. The special bags also withstand the temperature and pressure changes of air transport and deflate to less than one percent of original volume. Sealed Air claims the bags-made of a film that's extruded from a proprietary blend of resins-is recyclable in the low-density polyethylene waste stream. They aren't designed for reuse. The bags are designed to hold the air for up to a few months in transit. Bags made even better Early last year Sealed Air re-engineered the bag in an effort to make its product competitive with loosefill both in price and ease of use. Inflation of the air bag is simple. An operator first loads the product into an empty box. Next the operator inserts the inflator wand into the valve located in the center of the flat Rapid Fill bag. The bag is then placed in the box and the flaps can either be fully closed or in some cases partially closed so that the operator can verify that the contents are secure as the bag is inflated. A shut-off mechanism turns off the flow of air automatically and the box is taped shut trapping the product between the air cushion and the bottom (or side in some cases) of the box. Thus immobilized the products won't be crushed in the event the box is dropped during shipment. The inflator supplied by Sealed Air runs on standard electricity. In April '96 James River began using the new bag dubbed Rapid Fill® and noticed several improvements: * The bag is clear; the earlier version was opaque. "This gives you a better idea as to what's going on underneath so you don't overfill it" says Slye. Although the inflator has an automatic shutoff "many times we don't fill bags all the way and we can control that with just a little hand pressure on the bag [to "trick" the inflator into shutting off early]. Being clear the bag makes it easier for us to see the product while we do this." * The bag's inflation valve is now partially external with a "bull's eye" cut into the valve for easier placement of the wand. After a short burst of air from the wand of the inflator the valve pops open for even easier access. Slye says the whole process takes just seconds. * The inflation valve has been repositioned on the bag to make placement of the bag easier. Operators can inflate the bag while the box is partially or even completely open permitting them to visually monitor the process. Before the box had to be closed and the operator had to position the valve so it protruded from the box's corner a sometimes awkward maneuver. Finally Sealed Air claims that it has engineered a lot of the cost out of the package making it a void-fill material more competitive with loosefill. Slye confirms that the price "has definitely gone down." But he says "to be honest I haven't even looked at the cost because it's worked so well for us. We send product out for a presentation and if it gets there and looks like hell we lose the business. How do you put a price tag on that?"

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