Package Innovation To Go: Fueling our Zero-to-60
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
We Americans love our cars. And it’s a good thing we do, because we spend an awful lot of time in them. Year after year our commutes get longer, our kids get busier and our free time takes the hit. So, we find ourselves doing more and more in our cars out of sheer necessity.  We eat in them, for sure. We read in them (books on tape). We transact business by cell phone. A lot of us even get dressed in them (it’s true!). All of a sudden, our cars have become integral to our lifestyles and more than just ways to get from point A to point B.
How are our lives and families changing in ways that essentially make the car our mobile home? What opportunities do these trends present for packaging offered by consumer products companies, quick-serve restaurants and other providers?
The long journey home (and to work)
First, it would be a mistake to assume that it is largely the traditional family that is finding itself camped out in the car. Yes, kids cause a lot of the harried behavior in families and demand that everyone spend a lot of time carting them around. But that’s nowhere near the full story.
Our growing “affinity” for the car has just as much to do with extended commuting times and a diminished regard for formal meals. Today, traditional households—those with two parents and kids under age 18—represent less than 25 percent of the total. Both empty nester and live-alone households now outnumber them.
Kids or not, many of us are practically living in our cars. Longer commutes to work are transforming vehicles into dining cars for the morning rush. Average travel time increased from 21 minutes in 1980 to 26 minutes in 2000. But, the real impact is below the surface. US Census data reports that in 1990, 30 percent of commuters spent over 30 minutes getting to work. In 2000, 35 percent did. You can bet that it’s closer to 40 percent today. This trend would be even more pronounced if we were to discount the growing number of commuters who now leave even earlier in the morning.
Let’s consider some regional differences. In the Northeast, more than 12 percent of the working population takes mass transit to work. In New York, that number is doubled. No other region comes close. In the West and South, commuters carpool more often (about 14 percent).  These trends could be very intriguing to consumer products companies willing to “peel the onion” in their segmentation and product development efforts.
Eating on the go
Changes in eating behavior have followed suit in a huge way. Almost half of grocery-shopping Americans consume convenience-oriented food in the car. That’s second behind the home as the location most often cited. The distinction between meals and snacks is blurring as a result, perhaps partly because snacks have led the way in portability. In a study published last year, Information Resources found that new products are chosen largely on their quick-eating and easy-prep attributes. Consumers will pay vastly more for convenience than they will for nutrition.
More than one-third of consumers eat two or fewer meals per day, while almost half say most of their eating occasions are out-of-home. Among the meal-skippers, it is most often breakfast that gets the short shrift. Home cooking is taking a dive too, as less than 40 percent say they prepare even one hot meal a day. While dairy foods such as yogurt are key meal replacements, meat snacks, frozen snacks and bars are close behind. Most are one-hand accessible, utensil-less and cup holder-compatible—qualities that consumers value highly in meals and snacks.
Consumer goods firms and food service companies are adapting slowly. At McDonald’s, more than half of sales volume is pushed through the take-out window. That would make the cup holder the likely first frontier, as products of all kinds compete for that same cylinder of space. Other initiatives might involve presenting new food forms that allow one-handed eating. However, it seems as if QSRs (quick serve restaurants) are focusing almost all their attention on getting the food home securely. They are paying very little attention to the fact that the food often never makes it home.
Not surprisingly, of the top 10 complaints people have of QSRs, four of them are packaging related. Both McDonald’s and Burger King offer plastic cup holder-friendly beverage containers—but only when you ask for a large. Trays, bags, carriers and cartons are dedicated to safe transport, not convenient in-car eating. The large packaging manufacturers are not there yet, either. Trays and hinged-lid boxes are still their bread and butter solutions.
Some on-the-go convenience stores are offering food items that they believe are conducive to the car. We’ve seen the Pickle in a Pouch (just as the name implies), Egg-Breakers (two hardboiled eggs in a clamshell), and everything from cheese to candy in mini-packs. But these products are confusing the notion of smaller portions with that of car-friendly functionality. Where do those hard-boiled egg shells go? Manufacturers and venues must recognize that packaging has to consider the encumbrances of drivers and passengers as they indulge on the move.
Solutions for the in-car lifestyle
What can consumer products and fast food companies do to leverage the increasing role of the car in our lives? If you manage a consumer brand or a quick-serve food operation, consider the following:
Develop snack offerings that do more. Consumers have taken the lead on adapting offerings such as the bagel to their needs. Portioning and in-use ergonomics are mandatory in serving the need for car-ready snack/meal hybrids. Address packaging with a mind toward the full usage cycle: storing, opening, dispensing, consuming and disposing. How can novel food forms work in concert with car-sensitive packaging?
Consider upping the ante on car-friendly meal offerings. Sure, every fast food operator and convenience chain offers a beverage container that fits in cup holders and those awkward fiberboard trays. It’s time to take it up a notch with a full range of integrated meal offerings that are truly conducive to in-car eating. Package structure designs can allow meal kits to ingeniously fit car interiors and provide one-handed access. It’s not just about getting it home hot anymore.
If current trends are any indicator, many of us will be spending even more time in our vehicles. Food and packaging manufacturers, as well as food service providers, should acknowledge that fact with packaging that is designed deliberately and exclusively for use in the car. Factors such as driver ergonomics, vehicle interior considerations and changing meal patterns all provide fodder for new product and package ideas that will resonate with consumers. With some thoughtful consideration, consumer products companies can fuel the emerging in-car lifestyle. BP
Jim Warner and Ken Miller are Managing Partners at One80 Design, a product and package innovation firm in New York City. Jim lends creative concept development and implementation for client programs. Ken focuses on research methodology and marketing strategy to provide focused design direction for the creative teams. Contact Jim and Ken at 212.268.1801 or visit
“Cup Mate” snack
Snacks are difficult to open and consume in the car, particularly for the driver. Often, he lacks a consistently free hand and an appropriate spot to safely store a snack package. So, eating becomes a frustrating effort to open, dispense and consume a product, often with disastrous results.
Let’s say you help yourself to a drink at a convenience store. Rather than place a standard-issue plastic lid on the cup, why not reach for a snack in a package designed to do more? The “Cup Mate” (oposite page) contains your favorite snack in a package that snaps right on your cup. It’s a lid with both an access port for a standard-issue straw for the drink below, and it’s also an easy-opening, easy-dispensing, easy-storing snack package above.
Best of all, the tandem drink/snack only takes up a single storage spot in the car, which makes it easier to find, eat and enjoy. When it’s time to clean up, there’s no scraping the floorboards for trash. The drink and the snack packaging get tossed out together, with no mess.
This idea is a triple-win for the consumer, the convenience store, and snack food manufacturers. Consumers will love the functionality. Convenience store and carryout operators will love selling more snacks. And snack food manufacturers will get excited about incremental purchases that ride along with the most frequent buy: A favorite drink.
Fast Food “Pillow Tray”
Let’s redefine the need for fast food in the car, and consider an entirely new solution to address it. Current trays and caddies are made to transport and protect food in the car for consumption somewhere else. What if we acknowledge that the food we get from the drive-up window is often eaten the car, with all of the physical hardship and complexity inherent in doing so?
Here is a novel solution that meets the needs of both the consumer and the restaurant. It’s a “Pillow Tray” that does everything well. It ships and stores completely flat until needed. It is inflated with a quick, light burst of air. Seamed compartments in the oversized film pouch allow any food product to be quickly inserted with greater stability and protection. One unit accommodates any food form or primary package combination, from a heavy drink to a fragile dessert.
The printable top surface is made of thin, formed paper pulp with pre-cut compartments. It is sealed to an under-inflated polymer pouch that will conform to almost any interior surface for convenience and security. It will level out on a passenger seat, conform to a driver’s lap or accommodate the characteristics of any console. The air pockets will do a nice job of insulating heat and cold, too. After the meal is finished, merely pull the tab to release the air and it flattens out. Then, it can be used to over wrap all the primary packaging for one-step, tidy disposal.
Only when fast food and carryout restaurants acknowledge that consumers expect more from their utilitarian packaging components will ideas such as this come to life. Restaurants can overcome the lack of differentiation in food offerings by improving the quality of the entire consumption experience. A low investment of this type is sure to pay off in loyalty and satisfaction.