In addition to functionality, today’s packaging must convey transparency, not only of the product and its usage, but also of the company’s sustainability and social stance.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Packaging is playing a larger role in produce retailing, and technical advances, sustainability and the use of more advanced graphics, along with ongoing consumer concerns for hygiene and food safety are driving development.
Consumer trends, including the increasing use of curbside pickup and home delivery, will be the touchstone of effective packaging development and deployment. The changing market is driven by both the COVID-19 pandemic and a new generation of shoppers, the Millennials, who gained influence in the marketplace as they became homeowners, parents and bigger grocery store shoppers.
“There is a science in developing packaging to ensure the best shelf life, as well as understanding the needs of the market,” says Cindy Blish, associate brand and communications manager, Inline Plastics, Shelton, CT, which was the first to market with the tamper evident, tamper resistant line Safe-T-Fresh.
“Considering recent events, consumers are concerned with safety overall, and with it the safety of their food. Packaging plays a key role in keeping food safe,” she emphasizes, adding Inline’s line of Safe-T-Fresh products include over 100-plus shapes and sizes.
Roy Ferguson, chief executive of Chantler Packaging, Mississauga, Ontario, says the industry should consider packaging and its role throughout the supply chain — and even in the store — in much the same way it thinks about the qualities of produce items.
“Temperature monitoring, ethylene control, OTR and CO2 requirements have to be evaluated,” he says. “Prevention of the transmitting of invasive species of insects has become an important consideration. Shake test to evaluate bruising of the produce during shipping. Controlling the ripening process, all of which we have to rely on science.”
“I think, and can only assume others would agree, that one of the biggest challenges we face is food waste.
Retailers often respond to consumer demands with packaging options, even if just putting bulk items in open bags for quick pickup and assurance of minimal handling. The influence of bags, boxes and clamshells extends all the way down to the bottom line.
“Packaging is incredibly important to the profitability of the fresh produce industry,” says Jeff Watkin, director of marketing, Sev-Rend, Collinsville, IL. “Packaging is imperative to getting fresh produce not only to the retail level, but also to the consumer’s home while protecting the product as best as possible.”
The produce industry — and consumers — demand a lot from packaging, Blish says. “Produce includes a long list of different types of fruits and vegetables, most of which need robust packaging to protect the contents, maintain shape, not leak and travel well. Product integrity and shelf life are key challenges for the produce industry, especially when the food has to travel a distance. It is essential that the packaging protects the product from physical abuse, but also to help extend product shelf life.”
Although the pandemic made a huge impact on consumers and their concerns about food safety, a focus on health and wellness significantly predated the coronavirus crisis. Still, the crisis brought health to a new level of consciousness while it simultaneously confronted consumers with something they hadn’t experienced before: food shortages.
“We have to understand that families were food insecure,” says Aaron Fox, executive vice president, Fox Packaging, and president, Fox Solutions, Lockport, NY. “Our access to good and healthy food was limited and uncertain, and this had behavioral, emotional and nutritional impacts on our communities. Transitioning bulk product into packaging programs offered peace of mind by extended reduced touch points. During difficult times, consumers turn to brands that they trust, and packaging programs allowed these brands to be front-facing, especially during an increase in e-commerce and store pick-up programs.”
Blish says as the technology evolves and becomes more affordable, being able to track product throughout the supply chain via a packaging code, for example, will give consumers more confidence in their food’s safety and better understanding of where their food is coming from. At present, options are limited due to cost.
“The accelerated demand for safe packaging became the demand for pre-packaged foods. The supermarkets and foodservice providers now, more than ever, need packaging that is ideal for take-out and delivery, as consumers buying habits have shifted,” she says. “Consumers will continue to be cautious and aware of how food is packaged.”
The reality, Sev-Rend’s Watkin says, is also that home delivery has exploded across retail over the past 18 months and the produce industry has packaging solutions available to meet that trend.
His company has seen a surge in consumer-style bulk packaging that allows for better portability in the home delivery process. “This need has actually added more packaging to the mix for the fresh produce industry.”
Chantler Packaging’s Ferguson says that packaging solutions like modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) can reduce waste and improve food safety.
Trends in the marketplace favor the visual presentation packaging provides, says Ferguson.
“We are a visual society,” he explains. “We are inundated with graphics on the Internet, TV, even our phone, and produce packagers have to compete with all these other sources.”
“There has been a general trend to healthy eating and any graphic that projects that image sells,” says Ferguson.
Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president of the Fibre Box Association, Itasca, IL, says improved printing technologies allow more compelling graphics on corrugated packaging, even to the extent that labels no longer are necessary, so a box can act as a billboard for a product, and convey an effective message.
“Consumers want more information today than ever, with growing concerns about products’ country of origin, farming methods, genetic engineering and sustainable sourcing of their food, among other trends associated with human health and the environment. Today, a box is much more than a container.”– Rachel Kenyon, Fiber Box Association
“It’s really the first thing consumers see when purchasing an item in store or when it arrives on their doorstep if purchased online,” Kenyon says. “Consumers need to get all the information about a product from that packaging, and they want more information today than ever, with growing concerns about products’ country of origin, farming methods, genetic engineering and sustainable sourcing of their food, among other trends associated with human health and the environment. Today, a box is much more than a container.”
Blish says it isn’t just flash that gives packaging the power to generate purchases.
“Consumers prefer to see the contents of the package,” she says. “Clear packaging allows the contents to do the talking.”
Packaging needs to combine use, information and appeal, and marketplace developments and trends can create opportunities.
For example, packaging that appeals to the family has seen a lot of success in the produce aisle, says Sev-Rend’s Watkin, pointing to Produce Marketing Association’s eat brighter! campaign that uses Sesame Street characters on packaging and signs to promote fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Now many companies are developing brands that are directly steering that direction as well,” Watkin says. “Education is also a very popular theme that is constantly growing and evolving on the packaging vehicles for the fresh produce industry.”
“There needs to be a solid combo of functionality along with convenience,” Watkin says. “With convenience, this can apply to both merchandising for the product and handling of the product for the consumer.”
Consumers are interested in brands that are behaving in ways they deem responsible and that share their interests in health, environmental, or social causes.
Responding to environmental concerns can be a selling point. Aaron Fox of Fox Packaging points to a number of studies that found consumers rate sustainability as significant to their product selection and prefer companies that incorporate environmental consideration broadly into how they do business, including the packaging they use.
But, he adds it’s a challenge when using packaging as a marketing vehicle, because of some of the materials’ composition.
“That is a fine line,” he says. “Some of the substrates that make produce pop are some that are least environmentally friendly.”
Some retailers have outlined that, by 2025, their private label programs must feature the How2Recycle logo, and Fox Packaging has worked with retailers as it has its developed packaging product recyclability.
“As members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, we’re approved printers of the How2Recycle label, a label system which highlights a universal recycling language. By showcasing this label, brand owners who’ve opted to join the cause of diverting materials from the landfill can educate consumers on designated and proper recycling practices.”
Kenyon says corrugated manufacturers are working with recycling experts to make even better use of recovered fiber in new packaging, with nearly 52% of the average corrugated box today made of recycled fiber from used boxes.
She adds that more conversations are taking place between box manufacturers and produce suppliers, with new customers emerging who want box suppliers to replace other forms of packaging with innovative, paper-based primary packaging that complements the shipping package.
“Retailers value shelf space and certainly look for packaging that can help maximize that space, side by side with good stacking capability,” Blish says. “This increases efficiencies and helps reduce the need for restocking.”
Bottom line, she adds, “the packaging must address a key metric for reducing waste by enticing consumers and optimizing shelf life.”
When it comes to packaging, getting produce to stores and encouraging purchases are important, but Fox says it shouldn’t end there.
“I think that we need to make sure that the messaging is valuable, not just as attractive, but valuable once the package makes it home,” he says. “A customer depends on that product because it serves quality produce consistently.”