Increasingly, consumers are shopping the perimeter of the grocery stores, as they seek foods they believe are healthier and fresher with minimal additives and packaging. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the produce sections. However, with produce supply chains extending around the world in order to meet the demand for fresh vegetables and fruit year-round, greater use of packaging has become inevitable to extend shelf life and protect the produce in transit. Plus, with food safety becoming a growing concern, consumers are interested to know where their produce is coming from. They want to know it can quickly be traced back to the source.
At the same time, growers don’t want their product to be viewed as just a commodity. With extensive investments in technology for harvesting, processing and packaging, the produce companies want consumers to recognize their brands based on the quality and consistency of their products.
While many fresh produce items are still displayed loose or in stacks, packaging is becoming more important to the growth of produce sales. According to a recent study by The Freedonia Group (freedoniagroup.com), demand for produce packaging in the U.S. is forecast has been rising about 3.2 percent per year and is expected to hit $6 billion in 2019. That includes a range of packaging types that includes corrugated boxes, clamshells, mesh bags, wrapped trays, returnable plastic trays and plastic pouches.
Rifle Hughes is managing director of McLean Design (mclean-design.com) in Walnut Creek, Calif., an agency that specializes in packaging design and has worked with a number of produce companies such as Sunsweet, Sun-Maid, Grimmway Farms and Fresh Express. He says produce is largely a commodity product, but consumers are still drawn to brands because they instill a level of trust and safety.
Packaging Sells Produce
Packaging has always been used as a selling tool, according to Rebecca Casey, marketing director of Transcontinental Packaging (tctranscontinental.com/packaging). It allows supermarkets and processors to communicate important messages to shoppers. It also allows them to brand their product without spending a huge amount on advertising. What better way to keep their name in front of the shopper than on the package that is sitting in the consumer’s home? Colorful eye-catching graphics not only help sell the product and educate the shopper, but remind them where they purchased it.
Having the right package doesn’t just mean a colorful design or the right convenience features like steamable or microwaveable. It also has to incorporate the correct film properties and appropriate venting technology to keep the product fresh. If the shopper enjoys the experience of the product and the package, Casey says, they will become loyal shoppers.
The use of plastic pouches and clamshells has been growing quickly in recent years. Both formats offer aesthetic appeal, improved shelf life and have the capability to increase brand marketing and recognition. Pouches allow growers to easily unitize fruits and vegetables for easier stocking and increased sales volume. Meanwhile, Hughes says, retailers like stand-up pouches because they help their merchandising. The pouches don’t require bins or fencing systems to create a nice display.
Retailers like Packaged Produce
Retailers are looking for ways to increase their fresh produce profits, enhance shopper satisfaction, and reduce shrinkage while turning over their inventory more quickly. Casey says that is why more retailers are pre-packaging their produce items. She cites three major reasons: Retailers have less shrinkage due to over-picked items left behind or product falling on the floor; shoppers packaging their own quantity will typically pack smaller amounts not helping the retailers achieve their volumes; and finally, shopper satisfaction! Shoppers want their produce pre-packaged for convenience.
Hughes says packaging vendors are aggressively pushing stand-up pouches and there is some good rationale to it. Brands are looking into value-added packaging because it creates higher contribution on every SKU. Packaging such as pouches can allow the use of new processing methods like high-pressure processing (HPP), which uses extreme pressure to eliminate pathogens. This type of processing permits the processing to be done after the product is packaged. It does not use heat, which can break down nutrients and damage flavors.
Stand-up pouches are also very popular with shoppers for their many added benefits like a bottom gusset that helps hold the package upright to prevent spills; a slim package profile allowing for easy refrigerator storage and large windows to view the fresh produce.
Bill Goldfield, director of corporate communications for DOLE Foods, says while DOLE offers bulk produce without packaging, it also ships many commodity items in packaging. “One of the main reasons we wrap our commodity produce is to minimize consumer handling on fresh produce and to group several items together in a pack, such as bagged asparagus or three-count romaine lettuce.”
Pouches Enhance Salad Kits
Flexible packaging is a major part of DOLE’s fresh produce offerings, especially for packaged salad kits and blends. DOLE Salads are packaged in pillow packs to protect these products from handling during distribution. Flexible packaging is required for DOLE Salad bags because the product is cut and washed before shipment, so the salad bags help keep these products fresh longer, and extend the shelf life.
However, standup pouches can be expensive to produce and have limited applications with fresh produce. There are currently few cases where stand-up pouches make sense in the fresh produce category, Goldfield says, and he expects limited growth in the near future.
“We are seeing an increase in fruits and vegetables being sold in packages in order to give the product a longer lasting shelf-life,” says John Pessagno, senior buyer for Tanimura & Antle (taproduce.com) a major California grower of a wide variety of lettuces and other vegetable types. “With an extended shelf-life, the consumer has more time to use the produce rather than it going to waste. Brand equity and brand loyalty are also strong contributing factors in driving produce printed packaging.”
For the last 20-30 years, Tanimura & Antle’s packaging formats have trended toward more consumer-style packaging away from the previous “naked” produce that you still see on the shelf with no primary packaging. Over the last number of years pouches have gained attention and growth in the marketplace across food and beverage categories, Pessagno says. “For our core commodity items though, we have not seen strong growth in the pouch sector. The product drives the packaging format and we have to balance various attributes, consumer convenience, branding, protection, harvest methods and other attributes, when designing new packaging.”
Protecting Fragile Produce
Produce is notoriously fragile, so a major function of the packaging is to extend the shelf life. David Emanuele, produce market manager for Bemis (bemis.com), points out that the period from lettuce harvest to consumption can be as much as three weeks. If the lettuce—or any produce for that matter—doesn’t look like it has just been picked, consumers are unlikely to purchase it. However, he says, next-generation packaging can extend the product’s life on retail shelves and in-home storage by seven to 10 days.
That doesn’t happen by accident. Flexible packaging can incorporate some substantial technology that plays an important role in sustaining the produce.
Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) has been widely used in the produce industry to control varying levels of oxygen (OTR) and moisture (MVTR), according to Emanuele. Since fruits and vegetables are perishable and have different post-harvest needs (respiration rates, ethylene levels, etc.), changes to primary packaging substrates and specifications like OTR and MVTR levels are an example of creating a package that is well suited for that commodity.
Anti-fog coatings on the interior of pouches prevent the build-up of moisture that can block the view of the product and cause browning. Emanuele also points out that some produce needs to breathe. Consequently, mechanical or laser perforations are frequently applied to allow more circulation within the pouches to prevent deterioration, which is a major cause of food waste. Some estimates peg overall food waste at 40 percent, meaning millions of tons are thrown away each year.
“Our style of packaging helps avert food waste by creating a package that is appropriate to the individual product. We take into consideration the size and weight of the product in order to customize a suitable package. We design our packaging to protect, preserve and promote the product it contains, to get greater retail velocity and also ensure the packaging withstands all external supply chain variables,” says Pessagno.
Packaging design plays a large role when factoring in the needs of producing, cooling, maintaining cold chain integrity throughout the supply chain, handling mechanical forces, optimizing shelf-life and also adjusting to Mother Nature’s curveballs, Pessagno adds. Having a product and associated package that can attract a consumer and provide the other required packaging functions is critical in maintaining customer loyalty and reducing overall food shrink, with the shelf-life clock starting as soon as the product is harvested.
Another major driver in produce packaging is convenience. More and more, consumers want packaging with convenience features, which may include zippers, resealability, temperature indicators, etc. In grocery stores, they may want fruit packed in smaller, pre-cut quantities, while warehouse stores may offer the same product in larger, sturdier bags with carry handles.
Each style of packaging is important and designed for a particular product. Doing this allows produce companies to limit the amount of packaging materials needed, which will also help preserve the quality of the product. Certain packs don’t have a consumer demand for additional features, but each new item is analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
Convenience Features Offered
A study by Technavio (technavio.com) notes: “It is slightly expensive to produce packaging that is more convenient, but most customers do not have a problem with the high costs, provided that the packaging is easy-to-handle. One-person households make up nearly one-quarter of the households in the U.S., and two-person households are over 50 percent of the households in the U.S.” Therefore, these households prefer to buy small quantities of produce in shrink-wrapped trays or plastic bags.
Casey says single-serve and controlled portion packaging appeals to several different consumer demographics. This type allows healthy snacking with which consumers don’t have to be concerned about measuring the nutritional content of a single serving size.
Transcontinental has taken this new trend a step further, working with an East Coast customer who wanted to offer shoppers a single-serve corn on the cob in a steamable pouch. Consumers can take advantage of the grab-n-go and easy-to-use convenience. They just place the pouch in the microwave and in seconds they have a quick healthy snack without sacrificing quality. Transcontinental took the technology from its Steam N Eat pouches and converted it into a single-serve application. This is good example of how the produce department is making an entrance into the meals or snacking on-the-go craze.
Conveying a Brand Message
Packaging plays an important role in fruit and vegetable marketing by conveying not only a brand message but also a large amount of information relevant to consumers. According to Pessagno, consumers continue to value recipe information, and marketing and promotional campaigns on fresh produce packaging, which keeps them engaged in the category.
“Here at Tanimura & Antle, we take pride in our packaging and it is as important to us as growing fresh quality produce,” he says. “Our branding allows customers to recognize the freshness and great taste that come with our products. Now that we are an employee-owned company, we feel our brand and packaging will also connect the consumer with our story.”
Branded produce packaging also communicates necessary information to our consumers, Goldfield says. Often these messages are either proprietary details of the products (such as DOLE Celery Hearts are less stringy and “snappier” than the competition), or product information such as the state and country of origin, as required by Aldi.
Goldfield adds that printed packaging is particularly important to retailers and consumers because it communicates the DOLE brand, which is synonymous with quality and freshness. In fact, the DOLE brand on packaged salads is especially important. In a Nielsen (nielsen.com) Attitude & Usage study conducted nationally in 2015, DOLE Salads had the highest brand awareness (both unaided and aided). So, for retailers that carry the DOLE brand, they are carrying the most recognized brand of packaged salad, according to Goldfield.
Another form of flexible packaging is the low-cost mesh bag, which is commonly used for commodity fruits and vegetables. Depending on the item, and what the retailer requests, produce companies will use either plastic or mesh bags. Some suppliers might offer a hybrid combination of both types. Fox Packaging (foxbag.com), of McAllen, Texas, markets its UltraShield potato bag, which combines poly film and mesh for maximum branding space, the ease of packing on standard poly bag filling equipment and breathability. The added benefit of this special potato bag is its two-layer, black-and-white film side that prevents nearly 100 percent of visible light and 90 percent of ultraviolet light, dramatically decreasing potato greening and ensuring a longer shelf-life.