Powerful graphics that enhance displays come to both cardboard boxes and reusable plastic containers.
Walk into the produce section of a Costco anywhere in the country, and it’s hard to miss the corrugated boxes, which were used to ship from the field or packing shed, with the top and front pulled back to offer an inviting view of the fruits and vegetables.
Step into the cooler and you see similar shipping boxes displaying the spring mix, clipped spinach and other convenience fresh-cut greens in bags or hard plastic shells.
“If you look at the club stores, we provide the boxes the customers ship in with the open front or open top,” says Doug Rethlake, marketing manager at International Paper, Memphis, TN. “They use it as a display. In the cooler, they use the open front and open top box, so you can get your boxed bags of salad.”
International Paper’s North American branch makes a variety of products used for shipping produce, including corrugated packaging, containerboard and coated paperboard.
While most grower-shippers and retailers alike still look primarily with a utilitarian eye at the trade packaging used to bring produce to distribution centers and supermarkets, some are also looking at the role a good looking cardboard box or reusable plastic container (RPC) can play in merchandising fruits and vegetables.
“Consumer packs have proliferated because they provide a variety of consumer and retailer benefits such as enhanced merchandising, convenience, protection for the product, and recloseability,” says Roman Forowycz, chief marketing officer at Clear Lam Packaging, Inc., Elk Grove Village, IL. “Trade packaging is now designed to nest the individual consumer packs.”
Clear Lam makes a wide variety of flexible and semi-rigid packages for food, personal health care and other products.
Cardboard or Plastic?
The great debate continues over the comparative benefits of cardboard boxes or reusable plastic containers (RPCs), the two materials used to ship almost all produce to the distribution center and on to the store.
While much attention is focused on the relative economic and environmental virtues of recycled trees or reused petroleum, the makers of both are working to improve the look of their containers when used to display produce at retail.
“IFCO North America recently partnered with Wal-Mart and its growers to design and launch a new wood grain RPC that has all the benefits of traditional RPCs, but is designed with the look and feel of wood crates and transition easily from transportation and storage to in-store displays that appeal to retail customers,” says Hillary Femal, vice president for global marketing at IFCO, Tampa, FL.
IFCO, the largest RPC maker in North America, announced in June agreements to provide 130 growers with more than a million-and-a-half RPCs with the stylish but retro wood-grain look.
The company received encouraging news from a survey early this year of consumer reaction to its sharp looking plastic produce containers.
“Brandcheck conducted a consumer survey in 11 countries and found consumers prefer IFCO RPCs over cardboard boxes for fresh food packaging by a 55 percent to 25 percent margin,” says Femal. “The Global Shopper Produce Display Preferences Survey, conducted in February 2016 by [Mississauga, ON-based] Brandcheck, surveyed 2,200 consumers in 11 countries to determine grocery shopper preferences in relation to the two most prevalent types of produce packaging used for display – IFCO RPCs and cardboard boxes. “IFCO RPCs are the top produce packaging choice of men and women, as well as every age cohort,” says Femal.
Cardboard box makers have also stepped up their graphics game, and offer more striking visuals to attract consumers and promote grower-shipper brands.
“The print quality has improved tremendously,” says Rethlake of International Paper. “The graphics give you the ability to brand your product. If you go from a brown craft box to one that has a lithograph label or pre-print, you get tremendous improvement in print quality.”
Cases ready for retail are becoming far more prevalent as retailers look to manage their in store labor requirements.
“We are seeing a significant movement toward retail-ready cases,” says Clear Lam’s Forowycz. “These shipper merchandisers are designed to be opened easily and placed on the store shelf. The retail-ready cases enhance shelf utilization and reduce store labor.”
In addition to the shelves that are traditionally used to display produce, more retailers are also using upright displays that can hold pouches used to ship fresh fruits and vegetables.
“There are more and more stand-up displays in which the pouches are displayed,” says Hans Christian Schur, chief executive of Schur Star Systems, Oceanside, CA. “Instead of displaying the produce in bulk, there are corrugated stand- up displays of pouches. It’s something that recently became more prominent.”
Schur Star Systems makes a variety of stand-up, peelable, resealable, and rezippable bags in various shapes with unique features used to ship and display a wide variety of produce. “We don’t just do standard pouches; we also offer flexible, on-the-shelf packaging with many different convenience options.”
The pouches, which can be visually prominent in the stand-up displays, also benefit from more striking graphics than ever before.
“The graphics can be very strong,” says Schur. “Sometimes we use a double layer to give the graphics even more power. In fact, that’s the process we used for the jar-bag program for SunSelect Produce. Making the packaging pop visually on the shelf is important, and many growers are missing out on that element.”
According to Jack Tilley, market research analyst at Shelton, CT-based Inline Plastics, for fresh, colorful produce items, “clear packaging lets the items ‘sell themselves,’ as consumers are attracted to the color palette and can see the contents to be assured of the freshness.”
Because of their stackability, clear plastic rigid containers, like Inline’s Safe-T-Fresh line, are ideal for display merchandising, says Tilley.
“Retailers can build displays of the same, or complementary, produce groups. These displays can be on standard supermarket shelves of free-standing displays,” says Tilley.
A Matter of Cost
Not all shippers or retailers find it worth the cost to invest in the graphics that turn cardboard boxes, RPCs or pouches into powerful merchandising tools.
Schur Star Systems’ machine portfolio not only offers convenience packaging for the end-user but for growers as well. “Our SchurStar program enables growers to pack product, with bags we
designed for them, and ship it straight to market,” explains Schur. “Surprisingly, printing quality is a low priority for most growers. Price is usually most important. But some growers want their brand to really stand out, and we can help them with that goal.”
With corrugated cardboard, too, many major retailers find it economical to forgo the high-end graphics and just use the box as a way to get fruits and vegetables to the distribution center, and from there to the produce departments.
“The use of shipping boxes for display depends on what grocery store it is,” says Rethlake. “In a Safeway or Kroger, the fruit is clean stacked so it is taken out of the shipping box. If you look at a Meijer, they have boxes the produce was shipped in sitting right on the shelf, and it looks tremendous.”
Use of consumer packs to ship and display produce is reshaping the landscape of trade packaging.
“Consumer packs are commonly packed in a pack-out or specialty-pack facility,” says Raquel Serna, product manager for Orbis, Oconomowoc, WI. “This tightly controlled loop is an ideal opportunity for reusable transport packaging, since the product to be packed is shipped very short distances to these facilities. With these short distances, reusables can be used to ship product into these facilities and returned to the manufacturer on a regular and frequent basis. After they are packed, they are often palletized and shipped on to the distribution center on standard 40 x 48 pallets that can be easily stacked or racked.”
The move toward efficiency is also driving the decisions made by major grower-shippers as they set up their own package making operations.
“People are looking for machines that serve a variety of purposes,” says Kim Magon, marketing manager at Triangle Package Machinery Company, Chicago. “They want to be able to switch to make more than one style or size of bag. They’re trying to make their plants as efficient as possible.”
Triangle Package sells machinery to large grower-shippers such as Dole or Taylor Farms, that specify their own plastic packaging and want to be able to shift quickly from one sort of bag to another.
“We manufacture vertical form fill seal bagging machines you can use to make stand-up, gusseted or pillow bags,” says Magon. “You might want to make a stand-up bag that shows well on the produce shelf, or a large scale pillow bag for foodservice. These larger grower-shippers want to be able to switch quickly and easily.”
Another cost-saving trend worth following is the European-inspired shift from hard shells to resealable containers.
“European retailers and processors have moved away from traditional plastic clamshell packaging to lidding films sealed to trays,” says Forowycz. “We are starting to see this now in North America with grape and cherry tomatoes, blueberries, apples and other processed fruits and vegetables.”
Packaging is also being evaluated for its ability to extend shelf life, which helps reduce food waste.
“One of the most exciting innovations in printed boxes is the award given to Flexomed of Spain for ‘Best New Packaging’, by Liderpack [which is part of the Hispack conference in Spain] ,” says Roy Ferguson, chief executive of Chantler Packaging Inc., Mississagua, Ontario, Canada. “Flexomed worked with Chantler Packaging Inc’s PrimePro technology to laminate PrimePro film to the inside of produce cartons (called PrimePro Core). This provides extended shelf life without the need to add traditional, complex MAP bags to the process. The package has excellent graphics and is retail ready.”
Sustainability Takes the Stage
Another issue gaining great traction with many consumers is whether packaging material can be recycled or reused.
“The materials we utilize in on our flexible packaging machinery would be considered a ‘plastic film,’ and there has been a huge movement in the recycling community to get the word out that these plastics are recyclable,” says Terri Fountain, sales and marketing manager at Matrix Packaging Machinery, Saukville, WI.
Matrix manufactures machines that make packages for a wide number of uses, most of them in the food industry.
“As all the material we utilize on all of our machinery can be recyclable, it gives consumers piece of mind that by using sustainable packaging the fresh produce industry is dedicated to sustaining our environment for future generations,” says Fountain. “Because most of a fresh company’s produce is, of course, organic, every one of these companies wants their convenience and retail packaging to reflect that push towards a fully organic and earth friendly theme.”
Some customer bases are particularly concerned with whether packaging is
compatible with a lifestyle that includes organic produce.
“Packaging for organic items continues to evolve. In general the principle of ‘less is more’ is being followed,” says Clear Lam’s Forowycz. “Less material, less graphics, etc…. Recycled plastic or paper is used whenever possible. Packages that could be recycled after consumers are finished with them are in demand. Bio-based plastics that are derived from renewable plant-based raw materials continue to be used in the organic category.”
“As all the material we utilize on all of our machinery can be recyclable, it gives consumers piece of mind that by using sustainable packaging the fresh produce industry is dedicated to sustaining our environment for future generations.”
— Terri Fountain, Matrix Packaging Machinery
RPCs stake their environmental claim on a more complex calculus that takes into account the long-term use of resources.
“When making decisions about reusable packaging, companies often look at their entire supply chain to find opportunities for cost savings and to justify the investment,” says Serna from Orbis.
“Companies now also want to know about the impact of the reusables on the environment, so now it is also possible to conduct an environmental analysis. This analysis helps companies compare, calculate and evaluate reusables versus single-use packaging, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, energy used and solid waste.”
But in this utilitarian world, corrugated cardboard and RPCs still compete largely on the grounds of long-term cost.
“Retailers and growers are seeking to reduce costs, boost efficiency and become more sustainable when it comes to fresh food packaging,” says Femal.
“RPCs meet the litmus test in all these categories — they are easier to handle, cost less, protect and cool product better, and are more sustainable than one-way packaging like cardboard.”
This debate is far from over, however, as major retailers disagree on which trade package is most sensible, and some outlets even go back and forth.
“The corrugated share is holding very well,” says Scott Dillon, general manager at International Paper, Memphis, TN.
“Some groceries have gone to RPCs and then back to corrugated. Safeway moved to RPCs, and then moved back after they were acquired by Albertson’s.”