Live from ISTA Omni-Channel: Henkel Develops the ‘Rolls Royce’ of Closures for E-Com Liquid Detergent

Henkel tackles the issue of leaking laundry detergent bottles head-on, with the launch of a packaging system integrating the bottle and cap. At the same time, it introduces a concentrated product in a smaller bottle.

Shipping liquid products is one of the most often mentioned challenges when discussing e-commerce for grocery. Most retail bottles and closures for beverages and for liquid household cleaning and beauty care products were never designed to withstand the rigors of the e-commerce supply chain, resulting in leaking bottles and damaged products. By some estimates, one leaking bottle damages on average 10 other products packed in the same box. At the ISTA Omni-Channel Packaging Strategies Conference, Oct. 1-2 in Chicago, Nick Bull, Senior Principal Engineer for Henkel’s Laundry & Home Care category, shared his company’s experiences with developing an e-com ready packaging solution for its liquid laundry care products.

Having experience with both Unilever and Henkel, Bull said he has watched the evolution of e-com packaging for household care products from the early “Wild West” days of Amazon nearly a decade ago, where “there was no consistency on testing or preparation, and there was no right way of how to do anything” to today, where custom e-com ready packaging designed to meet rigorous drop and vibration testing is beginning to emerge.

Around two years ago, he said, companies such as Henkel began offering e-com specific items that met ISTA 3A performance tests. For example, the company offers a refill pouch of its Snuggle Liquid Fabric Softener. “Pouches are great for e-commerce, when they survive a drop test. And these do,” said Bull. “So you see refill pouches selling pretty well online. But the downside of refill pouches is that consumers don’t really like them. Consumers like to use the packaging they buy in a store. Unfortunately a lot of the packaging we sell in the store is not e-commerce ready, and it was designed, in some instances, 15, 20, or even 25 years ago and leaks like crazy.”

In response, Henkel’s European team began development of a leak-free liquid laundry detergent bottle, initially for its Persil brand sold in Europe. The result is a holistic design of bottle and closure. “Traditionally, with a laundry detergent bottle, you have the neck of the bottle with a spout that’s inserted, and then a closure on top,” Bull explained. “What our European partners realized when they kicked this off is that we really needed to have an integrated system of the spout and the cap working together, and then have some sort of locking system on the neck of the bottle so anti-rotation wouldn’t back the cap off.”

The closure comprises two pieces—a spout and a cap—with a thermoplastic elastomer molded into both to prevent leakage, depending on the dimensionals of the neck, and to account for any hazards resulting from the bottle being dropped. A locking neck feature on the bottle ensures the closure doesn’t back off. “You do find on a number of our products within laundry and beauty that when they go through dropping and then vibration through distribution, the closures relax over time, and you lose some of your removal torque.”

The bottle was designed to both to maximize supply chain efficiency for SIOC (Amazon’s ships in own container) and overbox and also provide consumers the same experience they have with the bottle they buy at retail. Said Bull, Henkel has found success by giving consumers what they want online with a bottle they are familiar with and not force-feeding them an alternative package. And, most importantly, the structure has passed Amazon’s ISTA-6 Series testing.

The proof of its success is in the numbers: When Henkel’s All Free & Clear was launched on Amazon in the U.S. in September 2018 in the new package, almost immediately it reached the top five of all liquid laundry detergents sold online within the first month. “Since then, we’ve been launching pretty much every SKU on Amazon specifically, and we’re rolling out another five to 10 in 2020,” said Bull. “We’re using the same system because it works.”

But just like the Rolls Royce, the new bottle requires extra-special TLC. Given that Amazon represents just 5% to 10% of Henkel’s sales, the company uses co-manufacturing/co-packing for the products. “This results in a lot of manual handling and packaging, which, given the unique design, has given us some hiccups and frustrations in terms of how manually capping these things gives us the performance we need down the road,” shared Bull. “But we’re working through that to implement some automation as well as adapt the learnings from this to make our future packaging more robust and simpler. Because one thing about this package is that we’ve got a two-piece closure that is actually made in Germany using an Israeli copolymer resin, then it’s shipped to where we produce it outside of Chicago. So we have a system that works, it passes ISTA-6, it’s a success. But now, going forward, how do we take the learnings from this and drive some of the cost out and make it simpler.”

The cap also requires the use of more material than a traditional cap. One audience member asked Bull how Henkel balances that aspect with consumer perception of its sustainability. Bull responded that’s one thing the company is trying to assess, but it feels the use of additional material does not compromise its recyclability. They are also adding more PCR content, where they see a benefit, while still meeting Amazon ISTA-6 testing. Currently, most of Henkel’s packaging uses 25% PCR in its clsoures, a percentage it will most likely reach in its bottles by the end of next year as well.

With the new system, it can also eliminate the tape that needs to be applied to bottles not using this system, as well as corrugated filler, and the time required to prepare the bottle for shipment.

“But, still, adding material from a consumer standpoint is not desirable,” Bull added, “but for them to receive a package that doesn’t leak is obviously paramount.”

Henkel is also working toward sustainability in other areas of its e-com packaging as well. One way is by replacing its 120-oz Snuggle Blue Sparkle laundry softener, which provides 150 loads per ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), with a 2x concentrated Blue Sparkle product in an 80-oz bottle, for 200 loads per ASIN. In a chart used by Bull, he showed that the traditional product in the 120-oz bottle requires (per load) a 0.80-oz dosage, uses 1.11 g of plastic and 2.87 g of corrugated, and fits 21,600 on a pallet. In comparison, the 2x concentrated product is a 0.40 oz dosage, uses 0.75 g of plastic and 2.16 g of corrugated, and fits 43,200 on a pallet.

“We’re cutting our current dosage in half, while keeping the performance for fabric conditioning the same,” Bull said. “And for Amazon, this is great, because it uses less space on a truck, not only in their shipping to the consumer, but also in how many shipments they are making to a house. “So if someone can get 200 loads out of bottle instead of 150, that less time the FedEx driver has to show up at their house.”

While not mentioned by Bull in his presentation, another e-com/sustainability strategy from Henkel is the investment it has made in Truman’s concentrated cleaning products, a Dow Diamond Finalist. And another, also receiving a Dow Diamond award, but not developed for liquid products, is its EPIX mailer, which uses paper and a separate adhesive-based filler that can be separated for recycling as a replacement for paper/plastic bubble mailers. Amazon is currently using the mailer in limited locations.

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