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Eco- and Budget-Friendly Refill Pouches of Consumer Products Run Up Against Convenience Hurdle

Interesting article in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I’m hopeful that manufactures will continue to improve packaging which will help change consumer behavior. Portion Pac has a great packaging / dispensing solution that we use every day.




Little Package, Small Problem

A bottle of Windex is mostly water. So it would seem only logical that the maker of the cleaning fluid plans to sell pouches of refill concentrate. The consumer would save a buck or two simply adding the water at home.

Think of the winners: the company, the consumer, the environment.

In reality, though, S.C Johnson & Son Inc., the maker of Windex, hasn’t set its hopes too high.

“The past is littered with failures” when it comes to the idea of refills, says S.C. Johnson Chief Executive Fisk Johnson. When it launches the product Friday, the closely held consumer-products company plans to offer the refills only through its website while it tries to build an audience.

The company acknowledges that the home chemistry project of pouring cleaners like Windex into narrow spray bottles and then adding water can be taxing.

“Behavior changes are the most difficult thing to do,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s the nut we want to crack here.”

Other companies also hope to convince American consumers that the inconvenience and potential mess of pouring cleaners from a refill bag into the original bottle is worth it. Method Products Inc. launched refill pouches for its laundry detergent and dish soap in March and has plans to roll out refills for additional cleaners next year.

Manufacturers have lots of reasons to like refills. The containers lack the sophisticated trigger sprayers, pumps or caps of the original bottles, making them cheaper and faster to produce, fill and ship—important savings as they watch commodities and fuel costs soar. Refills also give consumers an incentive to stick with a brand.

Costs per unit can be 20% to 30% lower with refills, boosting profit margins by 15% to 20%, says Burt Flickinger III, managing director of consumer-products consultancy Strategic Resource Group.

Refills are in wide use in Europe, where landfills and expansive pantries aren’t as plentiful. American consumers, in theory, also should like them for the potential savings and the eco-friendliness from the smaller containers. Containers and packaging generated about 72 million tons of trash in 2009, nearly one third of that year’s total municipal solid waste, according to estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

They just haven’t caught on. “Refills have had mostly five decades of failure,” says Mr. Flickinger, the consultant.

Winning shelf space in stores is difficult, though, because retailers must continue to stock the original bottles as well as their subsequent refills. Manufacturers also acknowledge that refill pouches, which typically resemble flexible plastic bags, often droop on shelves, making the aisle appear untidy.

Earlier this year, German consumer-product maker Henkel AG replaced the refills for its Purex 3-in-1 Laundry Sheets with new boxed packaging, blaming a lack of space and the propensity of the refill packages to fall over on store shelves.

To give its pouches better in-store posture, Method developed a weighted handle and sturdy base for the new refills. The design also aims to persuade consumers that the pouch is durable and easy to use.

Eric Ryan, Method’s co-founder, says sales of its refill products are on the rise and are so far exceeding company expectations. “The initial perception is that it could be messy and fragile,” Mr. Ryan says. “But once you get consumers to try them, they realize how easy it is.”

For the consumer, the savings mirror what might be available with a coupon. Windex’s pouches, which are sold in packs of three for $7.50, plus shipping, handling and sales tax fees, refill 26-ounce bottles that typically sell for $2.90 to $3.50. Unlike the brand’s large refill plastic jugs, which are sold in stores, the new pouches are small and require users to add water to the concentrated solution.

S.C. Johnson says that it is considering pouches of concentrated solution for additional cleaning products, including its Fantastik, Scrubbing Bubbles, Pledge and Shout brands.

To be sure, some refill products have succeeded over the years. Hand-pumped soaps are one example. Henkel expanded refills for its Dial soap this year and has seen sales of refills for the soap category as a whole grow faster than the original packaging. Another is baby wipes. Procter & Gamble Co. began selling refill packs for its Pampers baby wipes plastic tubs when it launched the product in 1996 and now estimates 77% of mothers refill their baby-wipe tub at home.

But those are the exceptions, and neither require mixing.

Mr. Johnson says his determination to move ahead with Windex’s concentrated refills stems from the environmental benefits and cost savings that they offer. Windex refills use 90% less plastic than a standard 26-ounce Windex spray bottle, S.C. Johnson says.

Since consumers add their own water to the refill solution, the transportation savings add up, too. If 20% of the 21 million Windex Original bottles sold each year were refilled instead, S.C. Johnson estimates it would avoid transporting six million pounds of water.

The company is warning early adopters that the product faces challenges. “Most U.S. consumers prefer the convenience of pre-filled products,” a brochure accompanying orders will say. As a result, “stores won’t stock concentrates and companies hesitate to create them.”

Write to Ellen Byron at