Packaging firm makes registers ring with innovative retail displays

Central Group moves into merchandising and marketing for North American consumer-product companies

Ontario’s Central Group created in-store displays for a Colgate brand of toothpaste.

Running a company that makes things from paper was probably inevitable for Rick Eastwood.

In the 1800s, his forebears co-owned one of Canada’s earliest lumber mills near Toronto. Later, his father worked for pulp and paper giant Domtar Corp.

“Paper is a very Canadian thing,” said Eastwood. “It was meant to be, I guess.”

In 1970, Eastwood’s father, Rich Eastwood, purchased Central Group, which at the time was producing industrial packaging. He is still chief executive officer today. “He was one of the first in North America to invest and develop high graphic packaging on corrugated cardboard,” said son Rick, who is the company’s president.

Through the 1990s, the company, which is based in Mississauga, attracted major clients including Nokia Corp. and BlackBerry Ltd. But when the economy faltered in the early 2000s, Central Group lost 60 per cent of its business as several clients went bankrupt and others moved their plants offshore.

The company was forced to innovate again. It looked for a product that would set it apart, and it began to design and produce advertising displays for the retail floor.

At the same time, Central Group started taking its product south of the border. Its Ontario factory is ideally situated near the bulk of North American manufacturing.

To break into the United States, Central Group identified products made by Welch Foods, Ocean Spray and General Mills that were struggling in the marketplace. It offered these companies a way to reach out to customers in grocery store aisles through innovative packaging and displays using its flexographic printing capability.

At the time, all three manufacturers were facing problems on their production lines. Central Group was able to address these issues and improve merchandising by creating what today are called display-ready pallets, which can be taken directly from the warehouse to the retail floor. This reduced the amount of material used and also enabled the companies to enter big-box stores such as Costco.

Canada is still Central Group’s largest market, but its business in the U.S. is growing rapidly, Eastwood says. The company also has been reaching out to other international clients through its connections with its customers in Canada. For example, one of its major clients at home is Colgate-Palmolive, which has asked Central Group for help in the Mexican marketplace.

Central Group also performs market research through its Innovation Lab in Mississauga. For instance, online surveys tell the company how customers from different cultural backgrounds and geographic areas might use a product. The company also uses eye-tracking technology that shows where customers are looking when they are shopping in a store.

Central Group has had to pay attention to demographics in its new markets. When marketing products in Latin America, for example, the company might choose a colour palette of earth tones and terra cottas to give the display a Latin feel. To accommodate the huge diversity across the United States, the language, colour and tone of a display will vary with the region.

“We can actually uncover not just what shoppers are interested in, but why they are interested in certain displays,” said Eastwood. “It really allows us to predict the likely success of the in-store promotions.”

Tailoring its work to clients is part of the company’s DNA today. Central Group has evolved by adapting to the changing needs of the market and, when necessary, completely redefining their business, Eastwood said.

“They say crisis is the mother of invention, and we have had a lot of necessity,” he said. “It’s essentially about innovation on steroids.”

Best Global Trade Finance Bank, GTR Leaders in Trade 2014

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