IFCO RPCs unlock circular economy benefits for Schnucks

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 12th December 2023, in Success Stories

For the family-owned retailer Schnuck Markets, Inc., providing a great customer experience is everything. "There’s a good reason why our customers are loyal," explains Mike Tipton, Vice President of Produce ​&​​ ​Floral at Schnuck Markets, Inc. "We ​put our customers first.​​​ ​Our ​commitment ​includes ​offer​ing​ affordable, high-quality ​and ​nutritious food in an even more sustainable way."

This ambitious goal brought Schnucks, now one of the largest privately-owned grocers in the US, to IFCO and led to a partnership that was focused on freeing up the teammates in the stores so they would be able to continue to prioritize providing the best service for customers across the American Midwest, where the retailer operates more than 100 stores in the states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

At the same time, IFCO supported the fresh produce and floral team to build sustainable solutions into their operations.

"As the pioneer in sustainable packaging solutions for fresh products, IFCO brought the expertise to the table that we needed to transform our operations in fresh produce with a focus on sustainability," notes Tipton. "And they did this in the most cost-efficient way without disrupting our day-to-day operations. By partnering with IFCO, we now have a cost-effective packaging solution that eliminates waste and ​supports our teammates​. ​T​he IFCO innovative circular model secures sustainability wins, while helping us provide the freshest produce possible to our customers."

What makes a fresh grocery supply chain sustainable?

Today, eco-conscious retailers are acutely aware of the need to transform supply chains into more sustainable operations. Typically, this means ensuring the economical use of energy wherever possible, conserving natural resources and minimizing waste.

A common strategy, for instance, is to offer more regional fresh products, something that Schnucks has been doing since the first store opened in 1939, or to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by implementing energy-efficient lighting or heating systems. However, retailers need to consider another key factor. And that’s the significant role the choice of packaging plays in such a transformation.

How reusable packaging addresses multiple issues

"Never underestimate the role of packaging in creating a sustainable fresh grocery supply chain," says Jonathan Brooks, Vice President Retail Sales North America at IFCO. "With a circular model for packaging, you can boost sustainability and address multiple common supply chain inefficiencies at the same time. In fact, when done right, increased sustainability for retailers is cost-effective. Our partnership with Schnucks confirms there’s a better, more sustainable and cost-efficient way."

Even if retailers decide not to take advantage of the the cost-efficiency benefits of using RPCs are still compelling. The "one-touch" system means that producers pack the fresh products into the RPCs on the farm and then, at the retailers, the RPC is placed directly on display. It’s a time-saving feature. As there’s no handling or stacking of products at the point of sale (POS), the "one-touch" system also reduces the possibility of product damage. However, as is the case with Schnucks, stores see significant ​benefits to workflows​ by switching to IFCO RPCs without adopting the "one-touch" system

What’s the environmental impact of single-use packaging?

Before partnering with IFCO, much of the fresh produce in the fruit and vegetable categories at Schnucks ​were​ transported in single-use packaging. As Brooks notes, such disposable packaging solutions have considerable downsides for retail operators in general.

"When single-use packaging is used for grocery shipments, we tend to see the same environmental issues coming up again and again," explains Brooks. "For instance, because single-use boxes cannot always be efficiently and securely stacked, these types of boxes can collapse more easily during transportation, damaging fresh produce along the way. This adds to food waste. And even when the boxes are empty, they continue to impact the environment. Single-use packaging waste piles up and isn’t recycled efficiently."

How do reusable packaging containers improve customer service?

The sturdier, robust and more protective structure and design of IFCO reusable packaging containers (RPCs) not only bring environmental benefits. As they support the teammates at Schnucks to prioritize customers. As the teammates now spend less time handling single-use packaging waste, they have a lot more time to spend with customers.

“By eliminating time-consuming issues – unstable pallets, damaged produce, single-use packaging waste – we can have more teammates dedicated to providing personalized customer service out on the shop floor.”

Mike Tipton, Vice President of Produce ​&​​ ​Floral at Schnuck Markets, Inc

As IFCO RPCs are specifically designed to simplify and speed up workflows along the supply chain, customers can enjoy a more personalized service. Brooks has more details. "As single-use packaging comes in different sizes and strengths, teams often struggle with unstable pallets. The ripple effect is costly and time-consuming," highlights Brooks. "Employees end up having to restack collapsed pallets, for instance, while also dealing with single-use packaging waste and food waste."

So, how did the IFCO and Schnucks team work together to achieve such impressive results?

Real-world pilot allows teammates to focus on customers

​​​"In today’s challenging economic climate, retailers are keen to identify actions that allow their teammates to spend time with customers in a way that also increases sustainability in the fresh produce categories without impacting affordability," explains Brooks. "It’s why we run real-world pilot trials with our customers. After such trials, the customer, workflow, cost and environmental benefits of switching to our reusable packaging solutions are made more transparent and ultimately greatly appreciated."

IFCO and Schnucks collaborated closely to evaluate how switching to reusable packaging containers within the IFCO SmartCycle closed-loop pooling system would ​​bring sustainability wins to the fresh produce categories and allow teammates to focus on continuing to offer outstanding customer service at Schnucks.

What does a pilot trial with IFCO RPCs involve?

This collaboration took the form of a pilot trial using the IFCO Black Lift Lock to transport some of the most delicate fresh products on the shelves at Schnucks stores, namely fresh leafy greens and broccoli.

In the case of broccoli, it’s no secret in the industry that transporting this fresh vegetable is tricky. Typically, broccoli is harvested, top-iced and refrigerated to preserve quality and shelf life. When single-use packaging is used for broccoli, however, the humid conditions can result in weakened boxes, which leads to damaged products, waste and a heavier workload at distribution centers and grocery stores. The IFCO Black Lift Lock is specifically designed to avoid these issues.

Pilot confirms quality, efficiency and sustainability wins

As well as being the more sustainable option, the IFCO Black Lift Lock offers the best possible protection for fresh vegetables and fruit during transportation. And it’s also the most time-saving packaging option for all steps of the fresh grocery supply chain.

Time-saving solution for stores:

Switching to the IFCO RPCs cuts down on the number of trips that employees have to make to the dumpster and the time they spend compacting and bailing single-use packaging waste. ​​For Schnucks, this frees up valuable time for teammates, so they can focus on providing excellent service for their customers.

Standardized sizing, robust design:

The advantages of the standardized sizing and robust structure of the IFCO RPCs were most obvious. For Schnucks during the transportation of fresh produce. When single-use packaging is used, it is more vulnerable to break down, which leads to teammates struggling with unstable pallets and box failures.

This sets off a ripple effect of costly and time-consuming issues, from restacking collapsed pallets to product loss due to damage. After switching to IFCO RPCs, the pallets now have a consistent size and are therefore more stable. The robust and protective structure of the IFCO RPCs reduces mechanical damage – crushing and bruising – and enables secure stacking. This minimizes damage during transport and picking, reduces product losses overall, and ensures that the produce in the stores is fresher and of a higher quality.

Smooth transition:

For Schnucks, it was essential that the day-to-day operations would not be disrupted by trialing or switching to a new, more sustainable packaging solution. As the pilot of IFCO RPCs confirmed, the switch was easy to manage for everyone involved.

It required no specialized training for the teammates or time-consuming changes to the daily operations. Ultimately, the smooth transition to IFCO RPCs was viewed as a huge advantage for Schnucks.

Moisture resistant:

At IFCO, we use material for our RPCs that is unaffected by high humidity, unlike single-use packaging. This is particularly important if you use top-icing to cool fresh products, as is the case for broccoli at Schnucks. Any excess humidity will not be absorbed by our RPCs, so they remain sturdy and strong.

And we also make sure that the structure of our RPCs helps maintain a more consistent temperature from the farm through to the point of sale. This helps secure a longer shelf life for fresh products.

Zero waste model:

As IFCO RPCs are designed to be reused up to 120 times and 100% recycled into new IFCO RPCs at the end of a long service life, you have zero waste in your stores. Overall, compared to single-use alternatives, peer-reviewed life cycle analysis studies show that IFCO RPCs produce 86% less solid waste.

Reduced carbon footprint:

Compared to the previous packaging solutions, IFCO RPCs significantly lower the overall carbon footprint of fresh grocery supply chain operations. Over their entire lifecycle, from the energy and materials used in their manufacture through cleaning and repair to end-of-life recycling within the IFCO SmartCycle closed loop, IFCO RPCs use fewer natural resources and energy compared to single-use packaging.

As the RPCs are designed to be reused again and again, unlike single-use packaging, and are only recycled after a long service life, using IFCO RPCs produces up to 60% less CO2.

Much more sustainable:

Compared with single-use packaging, life-cycle assessments show that you reduce your overall water and energy use with IFCO RPCs. Over their entire service life, these reusable and 100% recyclable packaging containers use up to 80% less water and 64% less energy.

How satisfied are Schnucks teammates with the switch to IFCO RPCs?

Following the pilot trial and ultimate switch to IFCO RPCs, IFCO ran an internal, anonymous customer satisfaction survey with over 150 Schnucks teammates. For each of the questions, the teammates were asked to rate their experience with the IFCO solutions on a scale of 1 to 10. The results were clear and convincing.

For instance, when asked to rate how the IFCO RPCs helped to save time, compared to single-use packaging, the teammates rated the reusable packaging with a solid average of 7.38. When asked if they would recommend the IFCO RPCs for use with other food items, the score went up to 7.44. Finally, when asked to compare the quality of IFCO RPCs with single-use packaging, the teammates rated the reusable packaging solutions even more highly, at 7.60. The high satisfaction rate of the teammates feeds into the retailer’s overall satisfaction with the switch to IFCO RPCs.

The circular model for packaging for fresh produce is the future

By taking a holistic view of Schnuck’s fresh grocery supply chain and carrying out pilot trials with IFCO RPCs, the IFCO team provided important insights into the daily operations that impact sustainability goals and supply chain efficiency.

The pilot trials successfully identified specific and timely measures that bring the necessary sustainability gains without disrupting the integrity of the supply chain or upsetting the customer experience. As a result, Schnucks is aiming to extend the use of IFCO RPCs in other fresh product categories, in addition to leafy greens and broccoli.

​​"​Our partnership with IFCO benefits our customers in multiple ways. By switching to IFCO RPCs our teammates have more time to focus on providing the excellent service our customers have come to expect from us. And the IFCO RPCs protects product quality," confirms Tipton. "What’s more, we’re impressed by the smooth transition to reusable packaging containers and the sustainability gains that IFCO’s circular model secures for our fresh produce categories."

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