Alcoa began development of Fridge Pack

The newest innovation in canned beverage multipacks, the 12-count Fridge Pack from Coca-Cola bottlers traces its origins to aluminum can producer Alcoa.

It might never have been developed except for someone placing a refrigerator in the middle of a hotel conference room.

”All cans are pretty much the same, so we try to improve how the can is presented to the consumer in packaging,” says Craig Covert, Alcoa market development manager. Techniques such as shaping, decorating, thermographic inks or special textures are just some ways a can distinguishes itself.

In 1998, Alcoa (Knoxville, TN) conducted ethnographic research to determine how cans are bought, stored, and used. Researchers accompanied participating families to the store, noted which products were selected and asked the participants how the decision was made. Following these families home, researchers watched to see how the individuals stored and used the products.

This revealed that though consumers often purchased multipacks, they usually only put three or four into the refrigerator at a time. “And people don’t usually replace cans as they remove them,” Covert says, “so when the last can in the fridge is gone, the next person has to select an alternative drink.” In addition, the researchers noted that most consumers have a certain amount of “dead space” in the refrigerator, usually on lower shelves or in the back.

To Alcoa marketers, the challenge became how to convince consumers to put more cans into the refrigerator.

Brainstorming in Georgia

In the spring of 1999, Alcoa convened a brainstorm session at a hotel in Georgia. Participating were Alcoa engineering and marketing staff, plus creative personnel from its advertising and promotion agencies. A special invitation went to Riverwood Intl. (Atlanta, GA), a company that has long been a collaborator with Alcoa.

“Riverwood has a rich history of packaging innovation,” Covert says. He characterizes Riverwood’s culture like that of Alcoa as “go-getters.”

In the center of the conference room was a refrigerator with all of the attendees sitting in a circle around it. A free-wheeling discussion ensued, leading to several package concepts.

Riverwood engineers and package designers later translated several ideas into custom mock-up packages for presentation to the three major beverage makers. Riverwood originally called one of these packages, developed in mid-2000, the “Fridge Vendor.” It was longer and thinner than the conventional 12-can pack so it fit into refrigerator doors or onto shelves easily, yet it presents a thin profile at its front.

Coca-Cola North America liked the package, and it began its own research on how consumers would accept it. By November 2000, the package was approved for production, and the company began to search for a bottler that could implement the idea in time for the peak summer season of 2001.

Coca-Cola Consolidated Bottling of Charlotte, NC, liked the concept, and the company was willing to devote time and resources to produce the innovative package (see Packaging World, March ’02, pp. 109 and 117). Working with Riverwood engineers, Coke Consolidated’s staff planned how to retool its plant equipment to produce the new 2x6 can pack for testing, without preventing the plant from continuing to produce the conventional 3x4 can 12-pack.

Meanwhile, Riverwood designers and engineers began to work on creating a package that exhibited all the features originally envisioned: easy to carry, easy to open, and easy dispensing of cans in the refrigerator. Test runs disclosed two obstacles: the handling device and palletizing of the new shapes. A punch-in handle with clear package printing to draw the consumer’s attention solved the first. The second problem was more vexing.

“During test runs, we discovered our lines were getting backed up because the palletizer couldn’t stack the new shape fast enough onto a pallet,” says Lauren Steele, a spokesman for Coke Consolidated. The plant engineers sought the help of equipment vendors and came up with a solution that required some modifications to the palletizer, its infeed, and the conveyor to it.

“The new package has a very different shape,” says Steele. “It’s so simple, it’s brilliant.” He characterizes the engineering changes the same way.

The initial test was an unqualified success, and the plant then changed over its Riverwood Quikflex[r] multipacking equipment to exclusively produce the Fridge Pack 12-pack for all its Coca-Cola products last year. This year, the Fridge Pack package has also been adopted by other Coca-Cola bottlers.

“Consumers have fallen in love with this package,” Steele enthuses. “They’re asking for it by name, so we don’t have to discount the product. Our 12-pack sales have increased at a double-digit rate, and we’re holding our prices steady. That’s a nice combination.”

So is the partnership of Alcoa and Riverwood. “First, we teamed up to serve the immediate customer, namely the beverage manufacturer and bottler,” says Phillips Jones, vice president and general manager of Riverwood’s soft drink business unit. “Then all of us continued the partnership for the benefit of the ultimate customer, the consumer. We never lost sight of what we wanted to do and why. As a result, everyone in this circle of partners is now winning.”

This summer, Coke Consolidated has taken the Fridge Pack concept to plastic bottles, first for Dasani water. So the final chapter in the story is yet to come.

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