Updated with new characters and graphics, lunch kits are a must have back-to-school item, perfectly suited to the grocery aisles
For kids getting back to school this week, carrying the hottest lunch kit gear is an annual rite of passage.
The food containers that kids take from home to school lunchrooms have come to define who they are since most get to choose what they want. Those lunch carriers, which turn into keepsakes, are tied to a child's history, generation and cultural childhood. It started with the Hopalong Cassidy lunch kit of the '50s that retailed for 39 cents and sold 600,000 units in its first year.
“Children have a say. If it's the character they want, mom will have to give them what they want,” explained Jessica Jabcon, marketing manager, Thermos LLC, Rolling Meadows, Ill.
“Kids want the newest, hottest licenses. Kids grow up, and grow out of last year's characters,” she said. Thermos' top sellers this year are Green Lantern and Smurfs, followed by evergreen properties like Clone Wars, Hello Kitty, Barbie and Scooby-Doo.
“With the economy, shoppers are looking for the best quality for their dollar and the most features. It's a kid's product so they are definitely looking for fun and innovative features on their lunch kits,” Jabcon added.
A popular item from Thermos that fits the bill is a Star Wars R2D2 lunch pack that is shaped like the robot and comes with light and sound effects.
For this reason, lunch kits are somewhat immune from the reported sluggish BTS spending.
“While parents are deciding how much to spend, kids are often making the final decisions on which specific items to buy,” said Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director, BIGresearch, in a recent BTS update report. “Characters like Disney's CARS and Dora the Explorer, along with many private-label brands that appeal to today's students, are helping retailers set themselves apart in the final days of back to school.”
Sales figures are not easily available specifically for lunch kits. The NPD Group reports about 28% of children ages 6 to 12 bring their lunch to school.
Larry Wesson, chief executive officer of MEDport, Providence, R.I., which produces a line of cold storage containers called Fit & Fresh, said the number of lunches being taken from home to either school or work has grown substantially in the last three years since the brand launched its BTS line in 2008.
He points to multiple reasons for the uptick in made-at-home lunches. “There are a variety of demographic, economic and social factors contributing to the substantial growth [in taking lunches from home],” he said.
The economy remains a big factor with more families packing their kids' lunches to save money.
The social and environmental concerns affecting the segment have become complex issues.
In 1972, the state of Florida banned the sale of metal lunch boxes with reports that lunch-pail-wielding tykes were using their lunch boxes as weapons, bonking their schoolmates on the head. Other states soon followed Florida's lead. Soft lunch kits now are de rigueur and outsell hard plastic lunch boxes, according to Jabcon.
Health-safety concerns such as proper temperature of containers to avoid food spoilage; use of non-toxic materials that are PCV- and BPA-free; and the nutritional value of the foods packed in the lunch kits spawned innovative new products.
On Thermos' website (www.thermos.com/cpsia/), retailers or consumers can type in a product's UPC code or item number and bring up its certificate of safety and compliance.
A feature of Fit & Fresh containers is plastic chiller inserts to keep food cold, a health and food safety concern.
The chiller inserts are integral to Fit & Fresh's health proposition. “Health incorporates ice, portion control and freshness,” said Wesson.
“People don't use Fit & Fresh for leftovers but for fresh foods,” he noted.
Supermarkets such as Kroger Co., Supervalu, Spartan Stores, Albertsons and Wegmans Food Markets are merchandising Fit & Fresh products, which are designed to work as a system, with price points ranging from $2.99 to $24.99.
“For grocery stores specifically, it's an opportunity for them to expand sales, upgrade price points and get a really good return on investment,” said Wesson.
Entrepreneurial start-ups such as PackIt, Westlake Village, Calif., are expanding the health-oriented lunch kit segment.
Two single moms last year introduced PackIt icepack bags to keep their kids' lunches cold. The reusable bags are lined with an “earth-friendly” gel to keep the freezer bags cold for up to 10 hours.
The bags, which retail for $19.99, are being sold at Whole Foods Market, Supervalu and Schnuck Markets, according to a PackIt spokesperson.
“PackIt is a unique product and the colors and prints make a very visually appealing display in the stores. The buyers like the shipper and the assortment,” said the spokesperson.
Such innovative lines like PackIt, which won a Rising Star from the National Parenting Publications Awards, offer supermarkets a chance to merchandise products carrying higher margins that are distinctive from items carried by the competition.
Nick Barainca, director of nonfoods, Scolari's Food & Drug, Reno, Nev., told SN the chain competes with eight Wal-Mart supercenters as well as other retailers.
“This season's best items are Disney and Nickelodeon sandwich bags and ice packs to put in lunch boxes and sacks. So far we are seeing our specialty items doing well. Commodity items like notebooks and paper are showing flat to a little down in sales,” he reported.
New Boxed Menu
Much attention and controversy has turned to what's inside the lunch container.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in children's diets these days, but none are more committed than parents themselves,” said Harry Balzer, vice president, NPD Group. “That additional focus and care is evident in the recent changes in the lunches kids are carrying to school.”
In the coming school year, Balzer expects fewer lunch boxes will contain peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which remains the most popular sandwich. In fact, only about half of all children will find a sandwich of any kind in his or her lunch box — down from nearly 80% just 15 years ago. But just as schools are offering healthier fare, increasing numbers of parents are now including vegetables, fruit, crackers and yogurt in their children's lunches, dropping the sandwich entirely.
Some public schools have gone as far as banning packaged lunches from home in favor of healthy school lunch programs.
Last year, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act. The bill promotes a healthy food policy at schools.
Banning kids from bringing their lunch to school has resulted in some backlash from families who don't trust the school programs. They believe lunches brought from home are healthier. Some feel banning lunches from home smacks against an individual's rights.
Jabcon said these types of social situations arise in waves.
“Overall with such trends, we haven't seen big decreases. We are seeing growth with health awareness. More adults are bringing lunches to work and they can pack a healthy lunch.”
Fit & Fresh has partnered with Dr. Deb Kennedy, an expert on kid's nutrition, to launch a website (www.buildhealthykids.com) dedicated to improving a child's diet and activity levels.
“We want to provide mom with a single source that makes it easy for her to understand what the ever-changing requirements are surrounding kids' nutrition,” said Wesson.
The reality today, he added, is between health consciousness and saving money when it comes to buying lunch packs.