Packaging is staging an encore performance in the supermarket produce department.
Decades after its heyday ended in an avalanche of bulk merchandising, packaged fresh fruits and vegetables are making a comeback. This time around, though, the practice may have staying power, retailers and industry observers told SN.
A combination of factors -- food safety and security, the quest for labor savings and the integration of organic produce, among them -- has led supermarkets to introduce more packaged versions of a host of fresh produce items. Improved packaging materials and processes provided by grower/shippers and distributors are making such options more viable for retailers, they said.
"A lot of these packaged items are finding their way into the produce department, and we embrace them all," said Bill Romley, produce director for Bashas' Supermarkets, Chandler, Ariz.
Although bulk merchandising is far from extinct, package-protected commodities are crowding displays. With some items, such as strawberries and grapes, loose displays have been almost totally replaced with clamshell containers. In other categories, from avocados and mushrooms to green onions and leaf lettuce, packaged versions are complementing bulk offerings.
At Bashas' 139 stores, packaged produce is being viewed as a way to boost the performance and appeal of various items, particularly those prone to heavy consumer handling. Romley said adding packaged selections to bulk offerings of items like sweet corn, tomatoes, cherries and bell peppers broadens consumer choice and yields a potentially higher produce department ring.
"With some commodities like grapes and strawberries, we don't mess with loose displays at all anymore," he said. "With the advent of better packaging you can still do massive displays of clamshells or overwrapped items and still make the display look fresh. Plus, we're able to gain a little more control, get better rotation, and experience less shrink as we use more packaging."
The California Avocado Commission said a new push for bagged avocados is enabling retailers to boost revenue for that category. Bagged volume increased by 77% in the last year, according to the Irvine, Calif.-based organization.
Merchandisers may lose a little control over department appearance with packaging, but experts said the deficit is often offset by the ability to better manage produce. Consumer-ready packaging, especially that used in conjunction with display-ready master shipping containers, makes filling and maintaining department displays far easier, according to Ed Odron, of Ed Odron Produce Marketing Services, a retail produce consultant based in Stockton, Calif.
"Bulk displays often don't get the total attention that they need, and they can get to looking pretty disheveled after a run of shoppers has come through the department," Odron said. "With packaging, a display can continue to look attractive for a longer period of time."
Packaging's return, though, isn't being universally welcomed. While the concept may make more sense than ever from a department management perspective -- witness the success of the bagged salad category -- fears of a downside persist. Retailers and their suppliers wonder whether the presence of more bags, plastic containers and overwrap will tarnish the produce department's carefully crafted look of freshness, bounty and color.
"Our edge as a small retailer has been in building creative bulk displays. If we rely too much on packaging, we end up depending on our vendor to sell the product for us," noted Tony Mirack, produce buyer for McCaffrey's Supermarkets, a three-store independent based in Langhorne, Pa. "And if we do that, we're no better than the competitor down the street."
He concedes that packaged produce is helping department labor at McCaffrey's, but he's still reluctant to stray too far, too fast from bulk offerings.
"Packaging has made it a bit easier on us in that there may be a bit less time spent building and maintaining large bulk displays, but I'm not totally in favor of any trend away from bulk," he said.
Aesthetics aside, there are more compelling reasons to adopt clamshells and plastic sleeves. They can play a practical role when it comes to food safety and sanitation. Bulk displays of unprotected produce, while visually appealing, invite contamination and tampering, observers noted.
"Partly for that reason, the consumer perception of produce packaging may be [becoming] more positive," said Dick Spezzano, of Dick Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, Calif. "I think the consumer likes the idea that the product is not being touched and handled by a lot of other people. It's seen as a lot more safe than bulk."
The growing importance of organic produce also is contributing to the demand for packaging. As more retailers become convinced of the value of integrating organic product into displays of conventionally grown produce, efforts to protect organic products from commingling increasingly are tied to packaging the organic product.
Packaging also is gaining acceptance with the push to brand more commodities, increase the ability to trace them throughout the supply chain, and ensure the correct product identification at the front end, said Matthew Caito, director of marketing for Caito Foods, an Indianapolis supplier of produce to independent grocers.
"Packaging is definitely in vogue right now," Caito said. "But that doesn't mean bulk is going to totally go away."
The challenge, according to Bruce Knobeloch, vice president of marketing for River Ranch Fresh Foods, a Salinas, Calif. grower/shipper, is to find the right balance for the modern-day produce department.
"We're in an era of experimentation," he said. "Retailers and their suppliers are looking for ways to present produce in packaging that gives the consumer and the store the feel and look of freshness that they want."
BULK VS. PACKAGED
Despite potential advantages, packaged produce may still have to overcome some critical consumer-perception problems. Recent consumer research conducted by the Consumer Network, Philadelphia, revealed a host of reasons why shoppers may pass over packaged produce. Concerns include:
Inability to know the quality of the product that's in a package. Despite improvements in transparency, consumers may still suspect sub-par product is lurking inside.
Perception that the packaged product isn't truly fresh. Packaging may render a product less-than-fresh in the consumer's eyes.
The possible presence of preservatives. Packaging may mean that artificial preservatives have been used to extend shelf life.
The effect of packaging on appearance. Consumers polled said they're lured to the produce department partly by color. Packaging, the study suggests, may obscure that quality.
User-friendliness of packaging. Those polled expressed some concern that the packaged produce they took home -- particularly that in large, clamshell packaging -- might not easily fit into the refrigerator and be easily accessible.
Of the 12 categories of grocery products examined, produce was chosen by more than 20% of the 1,000 respondents as the one category in need of the most improvements in packaging.