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UHT milk pack

The mystery of SA’s collapsing long-life milk packaging

Is it really that hard to design a six-pack of long-life milk that won’t rip apart before you can get it from the shelf to the kitchen? It would appear so, writes leading SA consumer journalist, Wendy Knowler.

Annoying packaging has a name: wrap rage. It’s a global phenomenon mostly associated with the struggle to penetrate overkill packaging: blister packs, clam packs, child-proof bottle caps, and children’s toys fastened into their cardboard packs with a ridiculous abundance of tightly twisted bits of wire.

But when it comes to milk packs, it’s the opposite problem – the cardboard packaging often falls apart when lifted, sending the cartons crashing to the floor long before you get home.

In my case, the pack (First Choice) tore apart from the handle as I lifted it out of my car boot.

It appears many consumers can relate to that experience. When I tweeted about my experience and invited feedback, the tweets began to pour in immediately.

“I feel like I deserve a celebration parade when I enter the house without breaking the long-life carry pack,” tweeted Tom Westgate (@The_Shmeag).

“I sometimes break it taking it from the shelf,” said Carlota Lukumi (@school1boy).

“Everyone has the same problem. Designed by someone who doesn’t go shopping!” said Janusz Luterek (@CPA_Lawyer)

Torn packs of many brands can routinely be found on most supermarket shelves.

I suggested to Tinus Pretorius, GM of sales and marketing for Woodlands Dairy, makers of First Choice UHT milk, that the carry packs were simply not fit for purpose. And given that millions of South Africans routinely buy them, that’s pack-fail on a grand scale. Why can’t they get it right?

“There has been a lot of development and improvement done on the milk outer case during the past year as we are aware that there have been complaints,” said Pretorius.

“The original problem was the handle tearing and then the milk falling. We then introduced the improved handle where the consumer needs to fold down the small ‘flaps’ when picking up the pack. This was a vast improvement and the number of complaints reduced significantly,” he said.

“The tearing of the handle is problematic to all UHT milk producers and, therefore, some of them have decided to move away from a handle. But we felt that this was not an option as the convenience factor outweighed the number of complaints received.”

@Avin_Maharajh hit the nail on the head with his tweet: “Beats me why they bother with the handle in the first place. It’s a trap!”

That’s just the problem, said the packaging innovations manager for Mpact, Kiril Dimitrov. The six-packs were a great idea until someone in the industry decided to provide consumers with “extra convenience which was never really required,” he said.

Such packs can easily be lifted, with two hands, for a few seconds and put into a trolley or car boot.

“No customer is expected to carry this multipack for longer than 10 seconds, because it’s heavy,” Dimitrov said.

“But despite this, someone suggested incorporating a handle into the wrap-around sleeve, so customers can carry these packs, and everyone started doing it. But they never really studied how and where this trip would take place.”

Then customers started pulling the packs from shelves and lifting them into trolleys with a single hand – causing many packs to pull apart and milk cartons to land up misshapen on the floor. In short, a big waste.

But instead of looking at the cause of the problem, Dimitrov said, the packaging developers tried to redesign the sleeve and the handles, using thicker cardboard. This came at great extra expense, but no real extra benefit to the consumer, said Dimitrov.

Finally, he said, his appeal to scrap the handles is being heard. Clover, for one, has done so, warning customers on the side of the pack: “Do Not Lift Here.”

But no doubt it’s going to take a while for consumers to regard lifting these UHT six packs as a two-handed job.

When it comes to long-life milk packs, it seems to me to be a case of “fix what’s broke” – remove the handle and with it remove the consumer’s expectation that it will do the seemingly impossible and not rip apart.