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Let's Revisit Refills

Industry is taking a closer look at refills in an effort to truly close the loop on material usage. Several large and influential companies are making an incredible investment in a cradle-to-cradle model, honoring the significance and urgency of the environmental waste issue.

Putting aside the driving need for solutions to the unsustainable material usage and waste problem, I’d like to take a look at the renewed attention behind refills as a consumer product model.

The Refill Dilemma

I’ve developed refill concepts for healthcare and personal care a number of times in my industry career, and the projects always took the same detour back to custom, one-time-use packaging. Our team believed consumers wouldn’t go for the refill approach. The complexity of managing a durable container that had to be kept clean and somehow stand up to daily, on-going use was a step too far from the easier, and often less costly option of standard packaging. A refill model required unique package development, stability testing, manufacturing set ups, and capital investment; a lackluster vote on consumer convenience always put the concept back up on the shelf.

Refills clearly aren’t a modern concept, in fact they’re the original product model, right? Throw-away packaging has only become the norm with the advancement of polymer science and manufacturing techniques. As recycling processes struggle to catch up, good old fashioned refills are gaining serious consideration, and industry is eager to address the “inconvenience factor.” Ecommerce gives refills a whole new spin, making a subscription model far more accessible. We don’t rely on the milkman any longer, but we sure perk up when UPS, FedEx or the Postal Service slows down in front of our house. 

Since we’re all consumers, let’s view this from a consumer perspective. What do we think about durable refills like the ones Loop is offering? What do these products feel like when we handle them, use them? Do they feel like a metal thermos? An elegant glass perfume bottle? Do they give us the dispensing convenience we’ve grown accustomed to? Can we tell how much is left inside? Is glass okay in the bathroom or the laundry room? There are certainly trade offs to manage and this further elevates the importance of thoughtful design.

To Refill or Return?

With durable, refillable packaging, the product design features are crucial. The decision to use refill pods, like Myro does, requires a refillable dispenser that puts the burden of maintenance on the consumer and contributes waste in the form of refill pods or pouches. 

A totally waste-free (returnable) dispenser, like the Loop system, avoids refill-pack waste and puts the burden of maintenance (cleaning, refilling) on the manufacturer. It somewhat restricts the ability to bring unique brand personality to the package though. I like to think this will change over time if systems like Loop gain acceptance and brands choose to invest in customizing their returnable dispensers. 

In either case, refillables represent an incredible (and enduring!) opportunity to use texture, shape, opening features, locking features, and labeling approaches to convey brand personality and also create an awesome user experience, and maybe even give consumers a way to personalize their containers.

Wooing with Scent

I believe fragrance will play an even stronger role with a standardized, returnable package approach. Scents and fragrance profiles will need to work harder and in close harmony to convey brand essence and continue the brand story in the absence of distinctive packaging.

Longer Term Commitment 

The subscription model essentially takes an element of choice out of the purchase equation, simplifying the consumer thought process. Opting out of a subscription requires deliberate action on the part of the consumer, which could be prompted by any number of things including dissatisfaction, but I think an interesting reason might be boredom. Particularly in personal care [unless you’re like my husband who prefers that his toothpaste, shampoo and antiperspirant remain exactly the same year after year] there is an element of exploration and a desire to keep things fresh and interesting. The booming trend of monthly subscription boxes (like BeautyFix, Barkbox, and my personal favorite, Yogi Surprise) illustrates our love of surprises, a sense of newness, and smartly curated “goodies.”

Finding ways to make brand subscriptions consistent and yet curated in a way that keeps things fresh will be an important way to keep consumers content and engaged.  Offering “boost” options would let them alternate, for example, to an exfoliating facial cleanser option one month and a microbiome balancing cleanser the next. A rolling selection of options would keep them loyal to your brand portfolio, while allowing them to experience the benefits of a regimen of products designed to complement each other (and hopefully prompt an added subscription!).

Don't Forget Design

As refills evolve into returnables and highly durable dispensers, design really blooms into a key factor for success.  If a consumer, fresh out of the shower, can’t pull the friction-fit closure off a returnable antiperspirant package because it’s slippery, that package likely won’t fulfill its intended lifecycle of use. If a busy parent mistakes a returnable bottle of body lotion for shampoo, they aren’t going to love their experience. As consumers look for ways to reduce their package waste, refillables need to offer an exceptional product experience that compensates for the extra planning and effort required. Thoughtful design can bridge both the package requirements and brand personality while creating a delightful user experience.

Enjoy a review of thoughtful refill design in my vlog post, Designs that Shine: Taking a Look at Refills


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