Attraction/Sustainability Trade-off Shifting For Produce Packaging

Originally printed in the October 2019 issue of Produce Business.

Consumers demand solutions meeting environmental criteria.

While packaging innovations have lifted the fresh produce category by extending shelf life, aesthetics still play a key role in determining consumer appeal and ultimately sales.

Some guiding principles are universal. However, beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder in terms of what packaging styles will be attractive to different groups, and sustainability trends have thrown a monkey wrench in the works.

Consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable packaging, but while these solutions are still in their early phases of development, their application sometimes runs counter to conventional-packaging design wisdom.

Sara Lozano, marketing manager at Sambrailo Packaging in Watsonville, CA, says the approach in produce packaging has traditionally been to let the produce speak for itself. All the packaging needed to do was provide visibility with as close to a “360 view” as possible so consumers could inspect the product.

“But I think that dynamic is changing with the move to reduce plastic packaging in produce and also move to more sustainable options,” says Lozano. “Now I think brand recognition, brand identity and storytelling have been more compelling for consumers to really finalize their purchase.”

This is now the fourth season that Sambrailo has been selling its Ready Cycle packaging made from corrugated paper. In parallel, the company also sells plastic clamshells while retailers grapple with the divide between those consumers who are willing to pay for sustainability and those who are not.

Sambrailo’s Ready Cycle Packaging

“What we’ve noticed is more retailers and more growers are being asked by consumers to move toward sustainable packaging and present a sustainable packaging option in store,” she says. “What’s interesting is we’re still seeing the plastic clamshells sometimes displayed either behind or right next to Ready Cycles.

“We’re all still in this pilot-testing phase to see which markets, which retailers, which consumer segments are really demanding it,” she says, adding the price point and visibility aspects are still very important for a lot of consumers.

The Ready Cycle packages have aqueous coatings that make them suitable for berries and tomatoes, although the company is yet to find a solution that is appropriate for fresh-cut or leafy greens due to the amount of water these products require, which damages the packaging itself.

Aaron Fox, executive vice president at Fox Packaging in McAllen, TX, uses his company’s moves in sustainability as a good example of how packaging appeal trends are evolving.

Stand-up pouches have been a game-changer for presenting fruits and vegetables attractively, and Fox is positive about the boost given by packaging innovations that now allow for adequate ventilation in these pouches, leading to better quality and visual appeal.

“Certain items like citrus — lemons, limes, those sorts of things — were being packed in pouch bags albeit with a sacrifice in shelf life because of the lack of ventilation,” he says.

To make the most of this trend and the demand for sustainability, Fox Packaging has introduced its pouch ‘#4 Fox Eco Stand-Up.’ The only issue is the material is high-density, meaning it is more difficult to get the transparency packaging companies usually want.

“In this situation, it’s not about bumping up the style quotient,” he says. “It’s more about compromising for the sake of recyclability.”

Fox says this approach to packaging puts more emphasis on print designs as far as aesthetics are concerned.

“Certain items like citrus — lemons, limes, those sorts of things — were being packed in pouch bags albeit with a sacrifice in shelf life because of the lack of ventilation.”

— Aaron Fox, Fox Packaging

“If you take that crystal-clear factor out, then they may want to replace it with some print, or you may want to just stress the recyclable aspect and hope that helps,” he says.

Tony O’Driscoll, vice president at Sev-Rend Corp. in Collinsville, IL, says sustainability is the No. 1 issue in flexible packaging right now. He emphasizes ‘how to recycle’ messaging will be critical to the success of these efforts.

Cindy Blish, associate brand and communications manager at Inline Plastics Corp in Shelton, CT, says all her company’s PET/DPET plastic containers are 100% curbside recyclable with a “Recycle Me” message imprinted on every package to remind consumers.

“Inline continues to utilize new and emerging technologies that require less energy and less material in the production of our containers, but increase the clarity and quality of our products at the same time,” she says.

Brands And Messaging

While some are sacrificing the visibility of produce, pursuing recyclable plastics and hoping the message will generate appeal, O’Driscoll notes trends have actually been moving away from graphics.

“Right now the pendulum is definitely housed in the ‘show me your produce’ part of the world and to de-emphasize the graphics on the packaging,” he says. “Just two years ago we were selling grape pouches that were probably 80 to 90% graphics, and today they’re probably 20 to 25% graphic — they want to see the grapes.”

Jeff Watkin, Sev-Rend’s director of marketing, notes how mini potatoes have become more of a premium product in recent years with pouches delivering a “more mature look to them” highlighting both the product and its uses, while some pouches for sweet potatoes include steamer functions.

Blish says recent research shows consumers continue to look for safety and convenience, and clear packaging gives them instant reassurance the produce is fresh.

“Tamper-evident products remain a key criterion for many consumers to ensure the product they are buying is ultimately safe and secure from tampering,” she says.

Meanwhile, top seals are also allowing produce marketers to find the right equilibrium between product visibility and marketing messages. Sara Lozano of Sambrailo Packaging notes the entire top seal surface area can be used as marketing and branding real estate.

“And then you have a tub that is completely clear and transparent versus, for example, berry clamshells,” she says. “What we see in salad is very different because they put branding, nutritional facts and recipes directly on the film on both the front and the back. So it varies definitely through commodities.”

However, Blish of Inline says top-seal containers are really only effective for single-use servings where resealing of the package is not a consideration.

“You know, you could wrap up tomatoes in beautiful Picasso prints, but it wouldn’t be a very functional package, and it’d be a waste of a nice picture.”

— Tony O’ Driscoll, Sev-Rend

“They also lack the flexibility clamshell packages offer for enhanced merchandising opportunities, with the inability to securely stack and create attractive displays,” she says. “With the increasing demand for safety and convenience, consumers continue to gravitate toward clamshells where the produce is perceived as fresher.”

Sev-Rend’s O’Driscoll says the main forces driving packaging designs are retailers’ private labels versus consumer brands, and different desired goals are at play depending on the product.

“Form follows function — how do you separate the aesthetics of something like this from the functionality?” he asks. “And at the end of the day the functionality is driving a lot of it — it certainly puts a corral around what you could do.”

“You know, you could wrap up tomatoes in beautiful Picasso prints, but it wouldn’t be a very functional package, and it’d be a waste of a nice picture,” says Driscoll.

Guiding Principles

The push for more sustainable packaging is nothing new for Eva Almenar, Ph.D, and an associate professor at Michigan State University’s The School of Packaging.

In 2012 she co-authored a paper in the Journal Appetite titled “Influences of packaging attributes on consumer purchase decisions for fresh produce,” which was also written with Georgios Koutsimanis, Kristen Getter, Bridget Beche and Janice Harte.

The researchers conducted a questionnaire and found containers made from bio-based materials were highly appealing to consumers, while participants also said the type of packaging material affected food quality. The “extend the ‘best by’ date” was ranked as the top convenience feature.
Sambrailo’s Lozano says for the time being bio-plastic materials are not available on a scale that would make them viable for her company yet.

But the types of material in use are changing in response to consumer demand. Almenar says this trend has brought about a greater use of films and more trays made from paper mold.

“This is a big change,” she says. “We are starting to see a lot of paper trays with produce, and produce wrapped with film in order to reduce plastic content.”

She clarifies not all consumers are interested in these new innovations with a sustainability focus, with more traditional consumers sticking to what they’re used to.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to change your mindset, so psychology plays a big role,” she says.

Almenar says overall there are three broad ways of assessing consumer demographics and making packaging decisions accordingly: Age group, gender and educational background.

“In the case of produce we are forced to show what we are selling and that is one general trend regardless of the country, because the consumer wants to see freshness,” she says. “Of course colorful things attract everyone, but then you need to think about the generations.

“Kids may like the fruit or vegetable that you’re selling because the package attracts them, and they will like the product even better,” she says. “In that case what you want is to sell the package as the selling point, not the product.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Almenar says older people look for two key things in produce packaging: easy opening and easy-to-read labels.

The packaging expert says educated people are more likely to be open-minded when it comes to innovative new packaging, so that definitely needs to be taken into consideration by retailers.

In terms of gender, an interesting revelation came out of the 2018 paper, “Effects of sachet presence on consumer product perception and active packaging acceptability – a study of fresh-cut cantaloupe,” published in the journal LWT – Food Science and Technology and co-authored by Almenar, Christopher T. Wilson and Janice Harte.

“Kids may like the fruit or vegetable that you’re selling because the package attracts them, and they will like the product even better. In that case what you want is to sell the package as the selling point, not the product.”

— Eva Almenar, Michigan State University’s The School of Packaging

Almenar defines active packaging as something that interacts with a product in order to extend its shelf life, and this includes ethylene-absorbing sachets.

In last year’s study, panelists expressed a willingness to pay for packages that extend the shelf life of fresh-cut cantaloupe, but females and people more than 35 showed a preference for packages without the sachets. Males and people less than 35 didn’t seem to mind so much.

Another way to consider packaging appeal is to note what can go wrong.

Fox of Fox Packaging says color is highly important, and as a rule of thumb you should never use green packaging with a white commodity.

“You don’t want green packaging or a green label on a white onion, and usually that’s because it makes the product almost have a green tinge, which you really don’t want,” says Fox. “So you try to use either a blue mesh, or white mesh that has a little blue in it or some blue in your labeling, to make the white crisper.”

Jeff Watkin of Sev-Rend says other problems can arise when people are looking “too big picture” with their layout designs.

“You’re limited to the equipment the packer is using, and that’s another thing we run into quite a bit,” says Watkin. “They set all this design work out to go on a film or a pouch, but then when it gets to the grower-packer side, the packer only has equipment for tags, so you’ve got to retrofit a design.”

What The Future May Hold

Watkin says another trend to make packaging more appealing has been to use custom-colored netting instead of standard colors such as blue, red or yellow.

“I’ve got one specific mini potato grower that started utilizing a burlap-colored netting, and that gives the look of almost a burlap bag, which complements their packaging,” he says. “They’re not just thinking of netting as an add-on after the fact; they’re thinking about how can we utilize the netting as a component to their brand.”

This certainly adds a rustic effect, and another way this aesthetic can be achieved is by using point-of-purchase (POP) pallets as bases for the packaging that sits on top.

“The role of retail packaging is to get attention, inform about the product and compel the customer to purchase,” says Gary Sharon, executive vice president of Vienna, OH-based Litco International, a company that produces engineered, molded-wood POPs. “When it comes to the POP base/pallet, we at Litco consider it to be a component of the package, or the display.

“The advantage is that it will not distract the eye away from the graphics on the display.”

While farm-fresh and rustic themes work well for marketing to consumers, there is this strange juxtaposition at the same time as packaging modernizes rapidly.

In addition to active packaging, Michigan State’s Almenar touts the development of intelligent packaging, which not only interacts with the product but also its environment to communicate messages.

As an example, Almenar says this type of packaging can communicate how ripe a product is, and even detect if it’s been above a certain temperature for too long, which could lead to a pathogen risk.

“That could be a color change or even a color in the barcode, so that, for instance, when you are scanning the package the code is not read, and then you already know that package cannot be sold,” she says.

“The next packaging issue or challenge is going to be the Internet of Things (IoT), and because produce is the most challenging food product to package, I am looking forward to seeing how the new packages are going to look in order for fresh produce to be sold, to be safe.”