It’s not easy being small. Retail small businesses face numerous challenges from cash flow to managing inventory, and the demands of e-commerce make packing and shipping a major pressure point.

How an e-commerce purchase appears upon delivery can make or break a loyal customer. There are no more second chances. And though package protection is a must, it comes at a cost. Because every dollar counts in a small business operation, many turn to the most affordable protective packaging method on the market: packing peanuts (aka loose fill).

But bags of loose fill are messy, wasteful, and take up vast amounts of valuable storage space inside small business retail locations. Worse yet, consumers hate them. Opening a box filled to the brim with static-stuck, puffy pieces of foam that seem to multiply before your eyes is an unboxing nightmare.

So why haven’t small business retailers made the switch to something better? Why do packing peanuts persist?

The answer lies with packaging engineers who have long failed to address this segment of the shipping economy in a meaningful way.

When developing new packaging solutions, it’s important for technology leaders not to look at small businesses the same way they look at larger, traditional retailers. There are key differences in the way small businesses operate that don’t fit the mold of traditional packaging technology solutions:

  • Small businesses manage balance sheets differently than large corporations and can’t quickly justify the cost of expensive technology that “pays for itself” over time, because they ship lower volumes than their bigger counterparts.
  • Small retailers lack technical support teams and often can’t invest in backup equipment should something fail at a critical time so they often opt for no-tech options.
  • Small businesses are extraordinarily space constrained and thus require solutions that take up minimal square footage and can be moved out of the way at a moment's notice.
  • Small businesses and big businesses are both feeling the effects of dimensional weight pricing policies put in place by freight transportation providers such as FedEx and UPS. This puts pressure on every square inch of a package and drives up shipping costs. It’s a financial challenge for shippers of all sizes, but small businesses have less breathing room to absorb additional cost.

The good news is that innovators are looking at small businesses differently and developing technology that suits their specific needs. On-demand inflatable plastics, for example, are helping small businesses move away from packing peanuts by combining protection and void fill within the same solution. Solutions such as air pillows and inflatable bubble use a compact roll of plastic film that’s fully deflated prior to use. A single roll of inflatable film created on demand with air accounts for approximately 50 cubic feet of packing peanuts.

Inflatable plastics aren’t new to the packaging scene. Bigger retailers have been using them for years. But recent technological advances in processing chips, intuitive interfaces, ceramic sealers, and smaller fans and pumps have made the equipment cost effective and simple to use, which is driving more small businesses to consider this type of right-sized packaging and banish the packing peanut for good.

Empowering retail small businesses with smart, cost-effective packaging solutions scaled for limited spaces and limited budgets will allow these businesses to compete against large retailers. It’s time to let go of packaging peanuts and bring on the power of air.

Chad Stephens is Vice President Global Research & Development at Sealed Air.