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“Every two-to-three weeks we’ll have an urgent order where a customer is short on something.They rely on people like us to help.”“There’s a lot of goodwill and loyalty involved in our business.You feel for your customer and want to make it happen for them. You’re dealing with the decision maker, and people care.”And while there is understandably much focus on the exterior of cartons to deliver that all-important shelf appeal, Celloglas recently carried out a micro-experiment with the Retail Institute, looking specifically at the effect of different interior pack finishes: shiny gold, matt black and plain.
The expansion of multinational giants such as Graphic Packaging International and Multi Packaging Solutions – itself acquired by the even bigger Westrock last year – has resulted in a sort of polarisation of folding carton converters.“Cartons has seen a huge amount of consolidation over recent years, and we now have companies like Graphic Packaging International that is totally dominant in food packaging and Multi Packaging Solutions which is probably dominant in healthcare,” he says.If it’s not right it sets a negative tone,” says Williams.For many customers, the quest for stand-out via new or different pack treatments is unrelenting, according to Glossop’s Sidebottom.We are trying to enhance training across the sector.”It’s a highly competitive market involving large amounts of commodity production, combined with rigorous delivery demands and service level agreements from customers.By contrast, some parts of the sector (of which more later) are both high-value and high-margin, involving multiple printing and finishing techniques.A number of retailers and brands have now pledged to reduce their use of plastics, including a pledge from Iceland to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging on own-label products by the end of 2023.“This is such an exciting time for the carton industry,” enthuses one senior carton industry manager. It’s a really interesting time for cartons because it’s the only material that’s truly sustainable.”Market research expert Neil Osment, director at research and consulting firm NOA-Prism, says that prior to recent events the carton category had actually been in the doldrums, with brands replacing cartons with flexible plastics and plastic trays.Paul Hartwig, production director at pharma and food packaging specialist Firstan, says the firm is already receiving new enquiries as a result of the plastics crisis.Consolidation has not been limited to the carton converters, it’s a constant theme elsewhere in the supply chain as well, with one carton veteran describing the situation as “like being in a sandwich”. Two substantial customers in their own right became one even more enormous customer, with Kraft subsequently leveraging its buying power accordingly and drastically reducing its number of suppliers.The impact of so much M&A activity is that what was the middle ground “has simply fallen away”, leaving a handful of very large players at the top of our table, and then a pretty substantial gap between those companies – all part of, or owned by, large multinational groups – and the independents, with The Wilkins Group emerging as the largest of those.Jon Clark, general manager at BPIF Cartons, views all of this as a major fillip for the sector.“If there’s one thing that’s helping the folding carton industry right now it’s the anti-plastic wave, which is more like a tsunami at the moment.