Retailers have a smorgasbord of choices when they shop for fresh food containers.
Because they serve consumers with different needs in diverse markets, retailers say there is no one plastic that can satisfy everyone. For that reason, most retail buyers purchase a variety of containers.
One relatively new product that is catching on is corn-based plastic packaging, an "environmentally friendly" biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based plastic.
Late last year, Wal-Mart Stores began switching from petroleum-based to corn-based plastic packaging, starting with the 114 million clear-plastic clamshell containers that the Bentonville, Ark., chain uses annually for cut fruit, herbs, strawberries and brussels sprouts.
"With this change to packaging made from corn, we will save the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline and reduce more than 11 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions," Matt Kistler, vice president for product development and private brands for Wal-Mart's Sam's Club division, told attendees at the Sustainable Packaging Forum conference in Philadelphia last year. "This is a way to make a change positive for the environment and for business."
In other markets, environmentally friendly containers have been around for years.
"We try to get biodegradable containers as often as possible," said David Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's Markets, an eight-store chain based in Mill Valley, Calif. "We've also looked at getting some biodegradable utensils but we haven't found the right solution yet. They're either too expensive or they break."
Russ's Market, a 19-store chain based in Lincoln, Neb., isn't using corn-based plastic containers
yet, but officials are evaluating them, said Tom Ross, deli director. Ross noted the price differential between corn-based and petroleum-based containers has been shrinking, as fuel costs have risen.
"A year ago, there wasn't a price advantage for corn-based plastics, but now, I'm told, because of fuel costs going up, there is," he said.
In St. Paul, Minn., Kowalski's Market stores are packaging dips and spreads in high-quality plastic made from a base of biodegradable corn.
The containers are "a little more expensive than regular clear containers," said Terri Bennis, vice president of perishables for the 11-store chain. Yet, "they're environmentally friendly and that's important to us."
Darrin Amundson, a salesman for Minneapolis-based Falk Paper Co., a packaging distributor, also noted that corn-based plastic packaging is becoming popular, particularly with upscale supermarkets that want to satisfy their customers' desire for environmentally friendly products.
"For supermarkets looking for innovative ways to combat intensifying competition, being able to create a point of difference by showing concern for the environment can be very helpful," Amundson said.
When Kowalski's first introduced the containers two years ago, the retailer created brochures, store signs and other materials that helped customers understand why corn-based containers are important from an environmental perspective.
"In our focus groups, our customers are constantly asking us what we are doing to protect the environment," Bennis said. "So as soon as we found a company that had a biodegradable container, we began using it."
Kowalski's is using corn-based biodegradable containers, in three sizes, made by Fort Calhoun, Neb.-based Wilkinson Manufacturing Co.
"We're now incorporating corn-based containers into our bakery department," Bennis said. "So as they come out with different molds, we'll be buying more of their containers."
Ross said because Russ's Markets operates three banners, serving diverse groups of consumers, the company considers the impact of a container's price on the purchasing behavior of shoppers.
Ross believes there are some customers willing to pay a bit more to have foods packed in containers that are biodegradable or at least recyclable. But shoppers also want packages to be durable, microwavable and good-looking, he noted.
"I think the best way for us to satisfy our customers," Ross said, "is to offer a combination of a sturdy lower-cost package which would allow us to get our costs down and something that is more environmentally tolerant. I think people are cognizant of the waste involved in plastics. People seem to be doing a lot more recycling of plastic bags now than ever before."
Although Ross is considering purchasing a least some corn-based containers, he said he would also like to see the technology improve. The containers he's seen have a yellowish tint which he thinks may detract from the appearance of the food inside, plus the packaging works best for cold, not hot foods, he noted.
"It's a promising product and it's going to be branching out into other types of molds very quickly," Ross said. "At some point in the future, we will be upgrading our plastics, either in color, shape or material, and we will probably couple with environmentally friendly packaging as well."
For some supermarkets, containers serve as attractive and reusable marketing tools that help put a retailer's brand inside a customer's refrigerator.
"Kowalski's has very nice stores," Amundson noted. "They are decorated very nicely. Their cases are beautiful. Customers can come in and find appealing entrees packaged in nice black microwavable containers. All a customer has to do is grab that container, go home and pop it in the oven.
"Even the lids for their deli cups are pretty. They have a five-color process print lid that says Kowalski's and displays the Kowalski pear-shaped logo and that reinforces their trademark, the perception that they stand for quality."
Some containers are so sturdy, reusable and good-looking that customers want to buy them without any food. That's been the experience of Dahl's Foods, a chain of 12 upscale supermarkets, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.
The retailer does not sell its plastic food containers as an everyday retail item, but when customers ask, "we will sell it to them as a favor," said Judy Dixon, the corporate deli director for Dahl's.
The retailer buys a variety of packages for deli items, fresh produce, baked goods, sandwiches, bulk herring, and meat spreads made from leftover cooked meats.
"We try to utilize the containers in many diverse ways, and we buy from a variety of venders," Dixon said. "And we put our Dahl's logo on them. It's more expensive than we might pay for ordinary containers, but having our name on the containers gets our name out to the public.
"Ladies and gentlemen will come in and they'll want a quart of this and a container of something else. They'll have a picnic they plan to go to or a potluck supper. What better way to get our name out there then to have our Dahl's name on the container? It's worth paying a few cents more to have that quality product with our name on it."
Not only are the packages washable, but they're also microwave-safe and recyclable, Dixon said. The containers make "excellent visual merchandising aids."
At Mollie Stone's, Bennett said the company has always used good quality recyclable clamshell containers. The area's environmentally aware consumers practically demand that supermarkets offer recyclable packaging, Bennett noted.
The chain brands its meal packages, using a clear seal label placed across the top of the containers, he said.
Mollie Stone's also provides paper containers at the salad bars, as an option for people who simply do not want any type of plastic.