Packaging is a constantly evolving challenge for growers. This involves several aspects, including boxes, labeling, automation, and consumer experience. Packaging is the last step in a plant’s life before it hits the retail shelves or arrives at a consumer’s home. Therefore, there is a lot of thought behind the packaging process.
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping is a newer aspect of the horticulture industry. Some companies offered this service before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it really ramped up once stores were forced to close. DTC has a unique set of challenges compared to wholesale partnerships.
Costa Farms, based in Miami, FL, focused on e-commerce after the acquisition of Delray Plants in 2017. Costa Farms’ e-commerce division has doubled in size every year, according to Daniel Goldgewicht, Director of Operations, E-commerce. He says it is on track for 1 million shipments this year, in comparison to 800,000 shipments in 2022.
One major challenge with packaging is the weather, he says. The plants must be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws their way. The boxes have air holes that are punched in warmer seasons to get the air flowing inside the box and make sure the plant can breathe.
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In the winter, potential cold damage is a problem, so there are no punched holes in the boxes. In fact, Goldgewicht says Costa Farms uses a software to calculate the temperature in various ZIP codes where the plants are headed. If it will be especially cold, workers place heat packs inside the boxes. There are heat packs that last 72 hours or 96 hours. However, some destinations are still just too far for sensitive varieties, such as cities west of the Rocky Mountains.
Justin Hancock, Senior Brand Marketing Manager for Costa Farms, says not all varieties are suitable for DTC shipping. For example, Hancock says some plants will stretch without light. Begonias are brittle, and it is impossible to ensure that they will be high-quality for the consumer who purchased them.
“There’s a fair amount of work that goes into making sure we can do the individual plant varieties,” Hancock says. “Some plants just aren’t adapted to shipping no matter how carefully we package them.”
Other challenges stem from the fact that plants are a live good, and may be sensitive to the wear and tear of shipping. There are many hand-offs while a plant is traveling with FedEx or UPS, for example, so the team at Costa Farms tries to ensure that the plant is protected for the trip. Goldgewicht says the top of the pot is covered in shrink wrap to make sure the soil stays in place during transit. Employees also place bamboo sticks and paper sleeves to protect the foliage. There are about 25 to 30 box sizes, but Costa Farms mostly uses six sizes for its common DTC shipments.
“There’s a wide array of different solutions depending on what we’re shipping, how we’re shipping it, and where it’s headed,” Goldgewicht says.
Opportunities for Automation
So far, most tasks related to packaging for e-commerce at Costa Farms are completed by workers. The tasks are not automated, but Goldgewicht says automation opportunities become more realistic as the e-commerce division grows in size. Costa Farms is exploring potential tasks that could be automated, not just from a cost point of view, but also to make their employees’ lives easier.
“There are a lot of repetitive motions that go into packaging 3,000 to 5,000 packages per day,” Goldgewicht says.
For example, covering the top of the pot in shrink wrap takes a lot of repetitive wrist motion. It is an ideal solution for protecting the plant so there is no soil spillage during shipping, but Goldgewicht says the ergonomics should also be good for the workers to reduce bending and twisting.
To move plants, the process is driven by conveyor belts. In the area where plants are shrink wrapped, there are three conveyor belts. Inside the processing facility, there are five conveyor belts. There are also up to four conveyor belts that carry plants into the trucks, Goldgewicht says.
At Costa Farms, e-commerce fulfillment centers around caring for their team and their customers, Goldgewicht says. Automation is practical when making tasks easier for their workers, including eliminating safety hazards. Automation also helps ensure all products are high-quality for consumers.
“Anywhere that we can automate repetitive motions to get consistent quality, that’s where we want to dedicate our energy,” he says.
Costa Farms has five full-time employees on a consumer feedback team. They collect information from customer reviews, phone calls, and any feedback from retailers. That information is passed up the chain to Goldgewicht and his team to look for trends, such as heat damage to begonias.
The specifications of the plant may affect the quality through the shipping process. For example, Goldgewicht says if a plant is 49 inches tall but it’s in a box that is 48 inches tall, the foliage may be damaged because it is bent over in the box. Pottery size also comes up often in consumer feedback. When Costa Farms introduces new pottery, workers send it with an extra layer of cardboard for protection against breakage.
“Sustainability is a big factor,” he says. “It’s really important to us and our customers.”
Shrink wrap is the only component of Costa Farms’ packaging that is not biodegradable. Within the last six months, the company stopped using bubble wrap on the pottery. Instead, they are using a paper-based product.
“We want to do everything possible to reduce our plastic usage,” Goldgewicht says. “We’re always looking at how we can reduce our footprint, especially on the packaging side. Shrink wrap is the only plastic component of our packaging. Everything else is paper based.”
Trends in Labeling
Tony Cook, CEO of Great Lakes Label, says the industry is moving fast towards print apply labels, specifically for gallon-sized pots and below, such as quarts and pints. There is still a need for locking tags in larger products, such as woody ornamentals and 3-gallon containers and above.
For a longer profile or set of care instructions, Cook says the extended content label works well. There are two panels so you can print and apply the top section. The care instructions underneath are pre-printed. It is hinged on one side so it opens like a book, allowing the grower to put more information on one small footprint.
“Those two labels are married together,” Cook says. “It’s kind of like an instant redeemable coupon that you peel off.”
Cook says the Lagit from Great Lakes Label addresses a common need that growers face. For vegetables, consumers want to take the tag with them. Many vegetable varieties are hard to distinguish when they are small, so consumers plant them and don’t know which is which until later in the season. Gardeners will insert the pixie stick in the ground by each row of plants, so they can tell which variety is planted there.
“We still like the concept of being able to print and apply with automation. We developed a product called the Lagit. It is a combination of a label and a tag,” Cook says. “There’s a corner of the label on the face of the pot that has a ‘lift here’ area to peel it up. It’s a thicker material, and when you peel it off, it comes in the shape of one of those pixie sticks, and consumers can put it in the ground.”
The Lagit was released two years ago and has been commercialized in the last year. So far, feedback has been positive. Great Lakes Label is wrapping up a Lagit trial with end consumers at Lowe’s.
Packaging trends continue to adapt over time, but industry leaders are at the forefront of innovation as the market changes.They are adapting to the needs of their clients.