Sustainability is one of the key factors guiding the commercial strategy at Dutch retail chain Hema B.V., which was founded back in 1926. “We strive to minimize the environmental impact of our products by sourcing alternative and sustainable raw materials and rethinking our packaging choices,” explains Michel van Leeuwen, Head of Audit for Technology and Servicing at Hema's central warehouse in Utrecht, describing the company's approach. For instance, Hema has introduced a sustainability policy for its most frequently used raw materials. A green leaf displayed on the packaging of textiles and household items tells consumers that these products have been produced using sustainable resources. Hema also places great value on ensuring the sustainability of its logistics. When the retail chain opened its central warehouse for storage and transport processes back in 2001, it introduced a closed-loop system based on returnable containers. The company’s logistics team sourced these first recyclable plastic containers from the extensive range offered by SSI SCHAEFER. The intralogistics specialists initially supplied 250,000 foldable/collapsible containers, ready for the commissioning of the central warehouse and returnable container system. As Hema has continued to expand, so too has its demand for high-quality returnable containers, and over the years the two companies have developed a longstanding collaboration based on mutual trust. The retail chain currently orders an average of 40,000 new containers every year.
“For almost two decades we have been using the same container type for both storage and transport,” continues Michel van Leeuwen. “From the very beginning, SSI SCHAEFER has proven to be the perfect partner, offering reliable deliveries and exceptional flexibility in terms of production times.”
Hema sells 32,000 of its own products and services from its online shop and around 760 stores – including around 650 department stores, primarily in the Benelux countries. Their stores are mainly supplied from the central warehouse in Utrecht. In addition to supplying the containers, which are specifically designed for the automated warehouse handling system, SSI SCHAEFER also provided the steelwork for the pallet warehouse with 24,000 storage locations, plus the steelwork for the bin warehouse with 50,000 storage locations. SSI SCHAEFER’s comprehensive range of bins comprises over 2000 different types, designs and sizes for storage, picking and transport processes. From the many available options, Hema opted for the FKE 6285 container measuring 600 x 400 x 285 mm. This returnable container is central to all its intralogistics processes, be it storage, order preparation, or its closed-loop system for deliveries to the stores.
“SSI SCHAEFER gave us extensive advice to help us make our choice,” remembers Michel van Leeuwen. “We are now reaping the benefits of a long-lasting, robust, flexible, and scalable container solution for our handling operations and process optimizations at all levels.”
The highly resistant foldable/collapsible container is made of polypropylene, can hold 57 l and meets the stringent requirements for returnable transport containers under German packaging law (Verpackungsverordnung).
The foldable/collapsible containers used by Hema to minimize transport volumes are also popular with many other customers across a wide range of sectors. “The key selling point for operators is the high-quality standard that comes with SSI SCHAEFER containers and the ‘Made in Germany’ label. Longevity, low failure rates, robust construction, simple yet secure handling, and an impressive price-performance ratio are just some of the other advantages. Our folding/collapsible containers, like the ones used by Hema, also function to a consistently high standard throughout the year, regardless of the ambient temperatures – testament once again to the high-quality materials and proven robust construction. The container’s reinforced double rim provides outstanding protection against warping and ensures the containers can always be stacked. Likewise, the vital hinge areas are always protected even without the lid. This is just one reason why the containers have such a long lifespan and low failure rate,” explains Christine Jorzik, Director of Container Systems at SSI SCHAEFER. “Our FKE 6285 and FKE 6320 folding/collapsible containers are used by our customers around the world 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” The ribbed and reinforced base also means the containers are perfectly designed for manual handling in stores and during transport, as well as for the automated handling system in Hema’s central warehouse. “We use one type of containers for the whole process, from the warehouse and through the supply chain,” explains Michel van Leeuwen. “Using the same containers throughout means no time is wasted repacking goods; uniform palletization and secure transport processes are ensured thanks to standard container dimensions; and there is no packaging waste in the stores.” Moreover, the use of returnable containers reduces transport costs. When dispatching orders to the stores, the containers can be easily stacked and palletized to make optimal use of the space in the lorry loading bays. And once emptied, the containers can be collapsed down to reduce their volume by 80% on the return journey.
“This also supports our mission to maximize the sustainability of our supply chain,” continues Michel van Leeuwen.
In early 2018, the Fraunhofer Institut für Bauphysik (Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics [IBP]) published a study on the carbon footprint of returnable plastic containers, based on example packing systems for fruit and vegetable transport. According to the study findings, the use of returnable plastic bins resulted in 60% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than with single-use transport packaging made of cardboard.
According to Christine Jorzik: “From the 6th cycle onwards, returnable containers for small loads produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions per transport cycle.”
Every week more than 10,000 containers leave Hema's central warehouse packed with orders. Once they arrive in store, the goods are sorted, and the containers are collapsed and stored until the next scheduled return transport leg to save space. When they arrive back at the central warehouse, they are unstacked, unfolded, and fed back into the closed-loop system as supply, picking, or transport containers. Over the years, SSI SCHAEFER has supplied Hema with around 800,000 plastic containers – that is a total volume of 45,600 m3 or the equivalent of almost 900 standard-sized swimming pools. “The majority of these containers are still in use,” explains Michel van Leeuwen. “The continued demand is due to the growth of our store and logistics network. Thanks to their high quality, the containers themselves last a very long time and show almost no signs of damage – they’re almost ‘unbreakable’.” Even after two decades of use, the wear and tear on Hema’s plastic containers is negligible.
By working together during the selection process to define the requirements for the returnable containers in terms of quality, technology, and materials, Hema and SSI SCHAEFER developed a flexible solution for storage, picking, and transport, which has stood the test of time for almost 20 years.