Retailers are trying to give their customers what they want in fresh-food packaging — convenience, safety, function, eco-friendliness and more
When it comes to packaging, striking a balance between pleasing customers and keeping costs down is a major challenge, especially in this economy, retailers said.
In a spot check around the country, SN talked to them about recent changes they've made.
They're adding packaging that's tamper-evident, other types that are easier to open and re-close, and also easily portable packages for food to be eaten on the go. Many are sourcing additional sizes, especially smaller ones to accommodate single servings, and packages with two- and three-compartment trays for meals.
And most said they've either become committed to sourcing eco-friendly packaging or are experimenting with it.
“It's hard to know when and where to go green because the cost is quite a bit higher,” one retailer said.
At least one bakery director is temporarily eating the extra cost for eco-friendly boxes for doughnuts, cookies and sheet cakes.
“We're as aggressive as any retailer in trying to keep costs down, but we're looking at recycled material and materials that won't hurt the environment,” said John Chickery, bakery director at Riesbeck's Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio.
“We've added boxes in bakery that are made from recycled pulp. They're smooth [in texture] and multi-colored. They look good.”
Chickery said that use of this particular packaging is in experimental stages that began about four months ago. Riesbeck's is currently absorbing the extra cost, which is almost 10% more than that of the packaging used previously. But suppliers have told him costs will go down as demand increases and production becomes more efficient.
“We're committed to doing more to protect the environment. Even our bakery tissues are made from recycled materials,” Chickery said. “We've just met with Bunzl to tell them we want more in eco-friendly packaging. It's been very well received by our customers.”
While this dovetails with what other independent retailers told SN, it doesn't necessarily reflect a deep concern among a broad swath of consumers nationwide.
In fact, The Perishables Group, Chicago, recently found that consumer concerns about eco-friendly packaging is still limited.
“My observations based on focus groups we've conducted show it's a small percentage of the population — the younger groups interested in organic and natural products — who voice concern,” said Steve Lutz, executive vice president, The Perishables Group.
“Consumers' major concerns right now are visibility — they want to be able to see a lot of the product through the package — and resealability. Everybody is conscious of not wasting anything.”
Lutz also noted that smaller packages are becoming more popular, and that packaging variety has continued to expand — two trends borne out at several chains that have recently switched their deli and bakery merchandising from service to self-service.
One of those is Pierce's Markets, a four-unit independent based in Baraboo, Wis.
“We've added a lot of different types of packaging recently in deli and bakery and in produce,” said Greg Hall, Pierce's general manager and store director.
“Convenience is the big thing. We shifted to self-service in deli, which involved entirely remerchandising our grab-and-go section. We added at least 15% extra space and are still evaluating [the set]. We're consolidating some items and stacking more.”
In doing this, Pierce's has sourced more small containers and containers that offer additional conveniences for the customer.
“We've begun using a container for a single slice of cake that has a spork, that's a combination spoon and fork, in its lid,” Hall said.
“We're offering those in the deli — for people who may want to eat on the go. We've monitored sales closely and they're doing pretty well. We'll definitely continue using them.”
Even at Pierce's, where most of the stores are located in rural areas, shoppers are coming in more frequently and buying only what they need for a few days. Households are small and conscientiousness about curtailing waste is rising.
Sensitive to shoppers' thoughts about waste, Pierce's has added small containers — half-pound and less — for leafy salads as well as for its signature deli salads.
Riesbeck's, too, is taking on more single-serve and double-serve packages in bakery.
“A lot of our customers are older, and have single households, so we try to accommodate them. We've added a package that holds two pieces of cake, and we usually put two different varieties in it. We've also added a two-count cookie package,” Chickery told SN.
“We started using both of those as an experiment in our delis and they've done so well some of our bakery managers are using them in their bakery now, as well as in the deli. Customers like them. They tell us it keeps them from wasting anything.”
Chickery has also looked at tamper-evident packaging in bakery.
“We do put our label over the package's edge, but this package is unique. It can only be opened with at zip strip.”
At Morton Williams Fresh Marketplace, New York, tamper-evident packaging in produce is new. It's not by consumer request, but in order to maintain the integrity of the package's contents, said Richard Travaglione, the 12-unit independent's vice president of perishables.
“The expensive dried fruits and nuts in particular and even some salads, we protect that way,” Travaglione said. “You don't want people undoing the lid. Also, some of those containers tend to pop open.”
Just for more attractive merchandising, Travaglione has added wedge-shaped containers for slices of cake and pieces of pie, and two-compartment trays to accommodate an entree and a starch or vegetable.
“We got the wedge packages in two heights so nothing gets mashed,” he explained.
“We've always had single servings. We're in the city where a lot of people are grabbing something for lunch. But we'd always packed single servings in square clam shells. These wedge-shaped packs have a great appearance. They cost more, but it's worth it.”
Eye-catching merchandising takes on new importance as an increasing number of deli and bakery departments are switching over from service to self-service, or are bulking up their grab-and-go displays.
Just as with eco-friendly packaging, there is always a balance that has to be kept between product presentation and cost, said Tanney Staffenson, advisor at five-unit Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore.
Staffenson told SN that Lamb's is on the lookout for recyclable packaging and does use some now in deli and bakery.
“It's a balancing act. We're a very green state. I know our customers are conscious of what's good and what's not for the environment, “ Staffenson said.
“But I don't know if they'll pay the price for top-quality, recyclable packaging. If we buy it, and then the products in them don't sell, then we've lost a lot of money.”
It's convenience more than green packaging that consumers are looking for, Mona Doyle, president of Philadelphia-based Consumer Network, found in a recent survey of her consumer-respondent base, which stretches across the country.
“Most were willing to pay more for better packaging, and they said convenience matters a lot,” Doyle said. “A substantial number were concerned about the environment but not so much that they'd pay more for packaging.”
Doyle said people wanted packaging that would help a product last longer. And respondents, especially older women, wanted packaging that's easy to open.
“Today's consumers are struggling [financially], but they're also spoiled,” Doyle added.
In a recent packaging research survey from Chicago-based Mintel, convenience was an important factor for respondents. Nearly three-quarters said “food and beverage containers could be easier to open.”
Lutz at the The Perishables Group said consumers are sending out mixed signals.
“For instance, they want to conduct their own sensory evaluation, but that desire is running head-on into food safety factors, and then there's a quality perception that comes with packaged produce,” Lutz said.
“Grapes in a clam shell have a more upscale look than grapes in a bag.”
Lutz said his observations tell him that customers want visibility in packaging. They want to see the product, and they want the package to be resealable.
John Burke, president of Food Service Packaging Institute, and John Pazahanick, partner, Design Associates/Merchandising By Design, Carrollton, Texas, said consumers will pay more for some packaging characteristics. But Pazahanick said they won't pay more for eco-friendly packaging.
“I think consumers expect a green/recyclable packaging from their retailer. It's going to be a given very soon, but the consumer won't pay extra for it.”
Similarly, the packaging research survey from Mintel indicates that 55% of consumers say they'd prefer to buy biodegradable plastic containers and bottles if available, but researchers said respondents would not pay more for such packaging.
The researchers' explanation: In their environmental concerns, consumers are driven by a sense of altruism rather than by a sense of danger. Therefore, they will support sustainability in food and beverage packaging as long as they don't have to pay for it.
That undoubtedly is why some retailers using such products are currently absorbing the extra cost.
“The hope is that as the manufacturer's [sales] volume goes up, prices will come down,” said Staffenson at Lamb's Thriftway.
Staffenson pointed out that sourcing the right package takes a lot of research, especially when it's in the realm of recyclable, recycled or any kind of eco-friendly packaging.
“You might find the recyclable packaging you want, but it might not look good with your other packaging, or maybe you can save money by replacing the whole line,” he said.
“What matters most is what the customer wants, but the package has to have functionality. It can't leak or fall apart,” Staffenson said.
“We tried a biodegradable plastic bag recently,” he explained. Cost and appearance “was OK, but the bags started degrading before customers got to their cars.”