Good Morning America (video)
NORTH CANTON, Ohio — A simple change to the design of the gallon milk jug, adopted by Wal-Mart and Costco, seems made for the times. The jugs are cheaper to ship and better for the environment, the milk is fresher when it arrives in stores, and it costs less.
What’s not to like? Plenty, as it turns out.
The jugs have no real spout, and their unorthodox shape makes consumers feel like novices at the simple task of pouring a glass of milk.
“I hate it,” said Lisa DeHoff, a cafe owner shopping in a Sam’s Club here.
“It spills everywhere,” said Amy Wise, a homemaker.
“It’s very hard for kids to pour,” said Lee Morris, who was shopping for her grandchildren.
But retailers are undeterred by the prospect of upended bowls of Cheerios. The new jugs have many advantages from their point of view, and Sam’s Club intends to roll them out broadly, making them more prevalent.
The redesign of the gallon milk jug, experts say, is an example of the changes likely to play out in the American economy over the next two decades. In an era of soaring global demand and higher costs for energy and materials, virtually every aspect of the economy needs to be re-examined, they say, and many products must be redesigned for greater efficiency.
“This is a key strategy as a path forward,” said Anne Johnson, the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of the nonprofit group GreenBlue. “Re-examining, ‘What are the materials we are using? How are we using them? And where do they go ultimately?’ ”
Wal-Mart Stores is already moving down this path. But if the milk jug is any indication, some of the changes will take getting used to on the part of consumers. Many spill milk when first using the new jugs.
“When we brought in the new milk, we were asking for feedback,” said Heather Mayo, vice president for merchandising at Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart. “And they’re saying, ‘Why’s it in a square jug? Why’s it different? I want the same milk. What happened to my old milk?’ ”
Mary Tilton tried to educate the public a few days ago as she stood at a Sam’s Club in North Canton, about 50 miles south of Cleveland, luring shoppers with chocolate chip cookies and milk as she showed them how to pour from the new jugs.
“Just tilt it slowly and pour slowly,” Ms. Tilton said to passing customers as she talked about the jugs’ environmental benefits and cost savings. Instead of picking up the jug, as most people tend to do, she kept it on a table and gently tipped it toward a cup.
Mike Compston, who owns a dairy in Yerington, Nev., described the pouring technique in a telephone interview as a “rock-and-pour instead of a lift-and-tip.”
Demonstrations are but one of several ways Sam’s Club is advocating the containers. Signs in the aisle laud their cost savings and “better fridge fit.”
And some customers have become converts.
“With the new refrigerators with the shelf in the door, these fit nice,” said April Buchanan, who was shopping at the Sam’s Club here. Others, even those who rue the day their tried-and-true jugs were replaced, praised the lower cost, from $2.18 to $2.58 a gallon. Sam’s Club said that was a savings of 10 to 20 cents a gallon compared with old jugs.
The new jug marks a sharp break with the way dairies and grocers have traditionally produced and stocked milk.
Early one recent morning, the creators and producers of the new tall rectangular jugs donned goggles and white coats to walk the noisy, chilly production lines at Superior Dairy in Canton, Ohio. It was founded in 1922 by a man who was forced to abandon the brandy business during Prohibition. Five generations of the founder’s family, the Soehnlens, have worked there.
Today, they bottle and ship two different ways. The old way is inefficient and labor-intensive, according to members of the family. The other day, a worker named Dennis Sickafoose was using a long hook to drag plastic crates loaded with jugs of milk onto a conveyor belt.
The crates are necessary because the shape of old-fashioned milk jugs prohibits stacking them atop one another. The crates take up a lot of room, they are unwieldy to move, and extra space must be left in delivery trucks to take empty ones back from stores to the dairy.
They also can be filthy. “Birds roost on them,” said Dan Soehnlen, president of Superior Dairy, which spun off a unit called Creative Edge to design and license new packaging of many kinds. He spoke while standing in pools of the soapy run-off from milk crates that had just been washed. About 100,000 gallons of water a day are used at his dairy clean the crates, Mr. Soehnlen said.
But with the new jugs, the milk crates are gone. Instead, a machine stacks the jugs, with cardboard sheets between layers. Then the entire pallet, four layers high, is shrink-wrapped and moved with a forklift.
The company estimates this kind of shipping has cut labor by half and water use by 60 to 70 percent. More gallons fit on a truck and in Sam’s Club coolers, and no empty crates need to be picked up, reducing trips to each Sam’s Club store to two a week, from five — a big fuel savings. Also, Sam’s Club can now store 224 gallons of milk in its coolers, in the same space that used to hold 80.
The whole operation is so much more efficient that milk coming out of a cow in the morning winds up at a Sam’s Club store by that afternoon, compared with several hours later or the next morning by the old method. “That’s our idea of fresh milk,” Greg Soehnlen, a vice president at Creative Edge, said.
Sam’s Club started using the boxy jugs in November, and they are now in 189 stores scattered around the country. They will appear soon in more Sam’s Club stores and perhaps in Wal-Marts.
The question now is whether customers will go along.
As Ms. Tilton gave her in-store demonstration the other day at the Sam’s Club here, customers stood around her, munching cookies and sipping milk. “Would you like to take some home today?” she asked.
A shopper named Jodi Kauffman gave the alien jugs a sidelong glance.
“Maybe,” she said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 2, 2008
A chart on Monday with the continuation of a front-page article about a new milk jug design adopted by Wal-Mart and Costco used an incorrect unit of measure. The new containers store 4.5 gallons of milk in a cubic foot — not a square foot. The chart has been corrected.