Efficiency and evolution appear to be this year's key attributes in packaging innovation
Produce packaging is no longer a one-way street. Today's best packaging navigates multiple demands at once, offering enhanced food safety, improved functionality or eco-friendliness. And these new innovations in produce packaging are spreading across categories, as evidenced by traits common to many of the finalists for the Produce Marketing Association's 2009 Impact Award.
This year's contestants had six categories to enter: supply chain efficiencies, environment/ sustainability, food safety, functionality/ technology, marketing design and marketing messaging/content. However, many of the nominees exhibit innovations that address more than just one category. For example, nets are being used in place of plastic bags for sustainability purposes, but also product quality and freshness purposes.
Dan'l Mackey Almy, co-chair of PMA's Packaging Council, and president and managing partner of DMA Solutions, an Irving, Texas-based marketing and business development company specializing in the fresh produce industry, said that over 50% of this year's award entries came from the same companies as last year, but they were all new products.
“They're evolving their packaging, so that to me is a sign that people are investing in packaging,” Almy said.
“In each area, we are seeing just a proliferation of advancement. We have a ways to go absolutely, but that's probably the No. 1 thing that excites me about what's going on in produce packaging — there's a continuous motion, so I think that's a very positive sign.”
And this constant stream of innovation is becoming necessary for suppliers, as retailers ask for packaging to respond to a growing set of demands.
“For example, we look at the performance of the product, the quality of the material, its appearance in terms of marketability and its supply chain integrity as it moves from the supplier to the distribution center to the store shelves,” Jason Wadsworth, sustainability specialist for Wegmans Food Markets, said at the Food Marketing Institute's Sustainability Summit in San Francisco earlier this year.
“We try to determine if a different type of packaging will give us better cube utilization, as well as whether the customer can reuse it and whether we can recycle it at the store or whether the customer can recycle it at home.”
Consumers also want packaging to provide more than just one benefit now, Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., told SN.
“The demand for new packaging is increasing,” she said. “It's our belief that consumers are placing more value on convenience, food safety, origin and sustainability. All of these factors indicate consumers are interested in the packaging of products.”
In fact, while random-weight products still lead sales in produce departments, UPC-coded items have grown at a faster pace in terms of both dollar sales and volume in the past year, according to Steve Lutz, vice president of the Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill.
Dollar sales of random-weight produce declined 1.3% over the past year, while volume declined 5.9%. By contrast, dollar sales of UPC-coded produce increased 3.5%, and volume increased 5.4%. Still, Lutz pointed out that the random-weight produce items account for a majority of volume and dollar sales with 83% and 71%, respectively, leaving UPC produce sales accounting for 29% of total produce dollar sales and 17% of total volume.
“Even though packaged is growing faster, the majority of dollars are in random weight, and if you look at volume, it's the same case,” Lutz said.
“The broad trend is there continues to be the growth and shift towards UPC items, but it's random weight business.”
Similarly, in the organic subcategory, organic UPCs are growing faster than random weight, with dollar sales of organic UPC produce increasing 10.5% and volume sales increasing 12.3%. Dollar sales of random-weight organic produce increased 10.2%, and volume increased 8.3%.
Almy said she couldn't say whether the economy has affected the packaging industry, but that from the award entries, she did not think so.
“The numbers I have seen out there from your trade publication and others is that numbers are flat in many cases, but then there are some categories where we continue to see growth, and packaging plays a part in both of those.”
“Traditionally, food and beverage manufacturers have sought to attract consumers through ‘convenient' packaging,” said Mintel International's March 2009 report on “Packaging Trends in Food and Drink.”
“However, consumers now like to see food and beverage packaging as a manifesto of their behavior and values toward their health and the environment. Mintel believes that in addition to providing convenience, packaging reforms and efforts targeting sustainability and the key health issues prevalent among consumers are likely to become mandatory in selling food and beverages.”
Subsequently, many industry experts view sustainable packaging as the future of produce packaging.
“More green containers seem to be the talk,” noted Tommy Wilkins, director of produce procurement, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas.
Almy said she saw sustainability innovations across all categories in this year's field of Impact Award nominees, not just in the sustainability category.
“I definitely think it's one of the leading trends, where we are going and actually where we are. Do we still have a journey to go? Yes, as it relates to anything packaged, there's still a journey to be had,” Almy said.
Richard Feldman, founder of Los Angeles-based G4 Packaging, a new producer of eco-friendly containers made primarily from sugar cane pulp, said he believes the most noticeable new trends in produce packaging are in the materials.
“There is a growing movement toward eco-friendly alternative materials including PLA [Polylactide biodegradable], rPET [recycled PET] and natural fiber trays made from sustainable materials,” Feldman said.
“There is a growing awareness of the environmental impact of packaging. Why would you package a fresh produce item that has a shelf life measured in hours in a package that has a life measured in centuries?”
Shelley Balanko, vice president of ethnographic research, Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., said that when it comes to produce, it's one area in which consumers like to see the least amount of packaging.
“I think marginally it's because that food is inherently unprocessed, and packaging and excessive packaging cues processed, fake and the like,” Balanko said. “They really turn to the produce department for their needs of whole, real foods so it seems like a disconnect in the consumer's mind.
“And then further to that is sustainability. … If packaging is necessary in produce, they'd much prefer to see recyclable products like cardboard cartons, paper packages, things that are made from recyclable materials rather than the plastics.”
Brous agreed, noting that sustainability concerns and other consumer demands were driving innovation in produce packaging.
“As consumers continue to demand environmentally friendly packaging, Publix continues to stay on the forefront of industry trends,” Brous said. “Most recently, we have experimented with clam shell containers and have had discussion on increasing our current line of PLA packaging.”
Publix has begun to replace its plastic sleeves with an elastic band for identification and price look-up purposes. Plastic packaging has also been reduced among citrus commodities and apples and replaced with mesh-style bags, which accommodates reduced plastic use and improves product quality, Brous said.
While some consumers may say they want to see less produce packaging in general, packaging is an important part of the efficient transportation of many different produce items, and can act as an effective marketing and merchandising tool while offering consumers convenience through functionality and sustainability.
“Fresh produce packaging is a two-edged sword — on the one hand, a merchandiser would love to sell everything in bulk and eliminate the packaging,” Feldman said. “The reality is that packaging is a vital tool in reducing costs and promoting sales. The balance is to present fresh produce in a fresh and natural way. The message today is fresh produce is good for you and your health, and the packaging should also be good for our communities and our environment.”
Balanko agreed and said that packaging innovation should focus on what is necessary for protection and transportation, how to make packaging that is least impactful on the environment and how to enhance freshness cues rather than eroding them.
In addition to freshness cues, packaging can help communicate information beyond nutritional facts to the consumer as well.
“I run a marketing company, so I'm looking for that type of stuff continuously,” Almy said. “Those that entered their products in that particular category, they were trying to tell their story and they were speaking not just as a country-of-origin type of message, but literally, ‘This is what we do to make these products available to you and this is why they taste so great,' and I mean really connecting with [consumers].”
Wilkins of United said he believes that effective produce packaging will stop a guest for a closer look, inform them and influence a purchase.
Almy added that many entries involved messaging to connect with the culinary interests of consumers today.
“Not just throw these tomatoes on a salad, but really connecting them through uses of celebrity chefs and those types of things,” Almy said.
“So, I'm very excited to see as a consumer base, people connecting with food in a more intimate way because that certainly provides an opportunity for our industry, that's for sure.”
Balanko agreed that recipes and the growers' narrative are much more interesting to consumers than nutrition facts, but cautioned against too much information.
“Less is more — the minimal necessary to protect the product and also enable the consumer to engage in a highly sensory way with their produce so that they can make the selection. Produce is just super personal. That is why online produce ordering has been kind of hit or miss in the past. Consumers want that very personal connection.”
Almy agreed that less is more, but said she believes it needs to be effective and that messaging is still a very significant tool that needs to be used.
“One of the things in our company that we try to work with our clients on is to avoid the ‘me, me, me,' and make it more about what the consumers are looking for,” Almy said.
Consumers who really want to know more about a product will seek it out — suppliers should have more information available on their website, for example.
“We need to still continue to invest in this area — from the packaging itself, what it's made of, how it protects our product, how it keeps it fresher longer — but also from a marketing standpoint,” Almy said. “It's still a huge vehicle for us to connect to the consumer and I think that we need to continue to invest in that effort to connect with our consumers via packaging.”