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    Seeing is Believing

    Grocers share their demands for fresh packaging, and suppliers aim to please.

    By Jim Dudlicek, EnsembleIQ
    Packaged meals need functionality and merchandising appeal.

    When it comes to fresh, it’s the food itself that tells the story.

    That’s why grocers like Liz Wilson are so adamant that packaging for fresh foods show off its contents to best advantage. “Packaging that hides the food drives me crazy,” says Wilson, VP of service deli and bakery for Kroger’s Los Angeles-based Ralphs division.

    But visibility is just one of the traits that retailers tell Progressive Grocer they look for in the packaging that showcases their highest-profile — and usually highest-priced — items.

    “You want the packaging to reflect the quality of the food,” says the deli and bakery director of a major Midwestern retailer. Particularly for a store-brand product, she says, even if the product quality improved, “if the packaging didn’t keep up, [consumers] would still view it as inferior product.” The packaging also needs to be durable, “especially since there are so many self-checkouts now,” this deli director adds. “If it’s flimsy and falls open, they’re not going to buy that again, regardless of how good the food is.”

    Packaging also needs to keep products secure and safe from damage (fancy baked goods, for example), it needs to keep cold foods cold (deli salads) and hot foods hot (ready-to-eat entrées), and it needs to keep foods fresher longer, especially with the rising cost of beef and other center-plate proteins. Grocers also consider it a plus if packaging has multiple uses, to reduce costs and minimize inventory.

    Kelly Mortensen, meat director for Salt Lake City-based Associated Food Stores, says the time-honored overwrap meat film system used by many retailers for the past several decades “is really inefficient when it translates to shelf life or package integrity, compared to the new packaging that is available.” The problem, Mortensen contends, is that “you cannot get more than three days on the packaging before it changes to a not-so-desirable color, and also before it starts leaking, which we have all experienced in our refrigerators at home. So it doesn’t really meet the needs of the retailer because it causes shrink, and the same situation is passed on to the consumer in the form of bloody, wet packages in their home refrigerators, with a limited time to prepare the product.”

    Mortensen acknowledges that vacuum-packed meat hasn’t been universally accepted by consumers. “Perhaps it’s possibly the color change of the product, and also the fact that it is perceived that it is not produced at the store,” he speculates. “Whatever the case may be, the consumer needs to get over it, because it is costing countless dollars and the wasting of a very valuable product.”

    Fresh Lessons

    Fresh packaging is constantly improving, getting extended life of up to 30 days on beef and pork, Mortensen notes. “They are getting closer to the bright-red and fresh colors that the regular meat film overwrap system produces,” he says. “It would be advantageous if someone could produce some equipment with a [small] footprint that could be put into a regular-size store to produce multiple packages in a short time frame with at least some sort of efficiency.”

    Educating consumers is obviously an important part of the solution. “Shoppers need to embrace technology in fresh food, and especially in food packaging,” Mortensen says. “Consumers are very big parts of the equation of transitioning to different packaging. Manufacturers, suppliers and retailers need to educate consumers on the value of the new packaging that is trying to make its way into our system.”

    Jerry Kelly, national retail account manager for Atlanta-based Sealed Air’s Cryovac food packaging brand, says retailers and consumers alike are becoming increasingly concerned with reducing food waste. “For retailers, minimizing shrink is essential for this goal,” he says. “While sustainability and environmental responsibility influence this trend, steadily rising meat prices make preserving freshness equally important.”

    According to the 2014 “Power of Meat” report, a study Sealed Air annually commissions with the American Meat Institute (AMI) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI), price remains the primary factor influencing consumers’ meat and poultry purchases. “If consumers are going to buy meat and poultry at higher prices, it’s the responsibility of retailers to offer fresh, high-quality and long-lasting products to prevent premature disposal,” Kelly asserts.

    As part of this initiative, Sealed Air is working closely with retailers on campaigns and messaging to educate consumers on the benefits of vacuum-packaged beef. “While most shoppers recognize vacuum-packaged products in the meat case, they may not fully grasp that this format offers the freshest and longest-lasting meat available,” Kelly says, noting that a recent study Cryovac conducted with the Beef Checkoff found that “not only does consumer purchase intent increase once they are familiar with vacuum packaging’s benefits, but they also are willing to spend more on such products.”

    Making Life Easier

    Convenience is an equally impactful purchase driver, as consumers seek quality meal options they can prepare with little time and effort required. According to the 2014 “Power of Meat” report, retail sales for heat-and-eat and ready-to-eat meals significantly increased in 2013.

    “During a typical week, 34 percent of consumers are unsure whether they will cook or eat out as close as two hours before dinner half of the time,” Kelly says. “Efficient packaging can help retailers offer restaurant-quality meals at fair prices and compete with outside establishments.”

    Historically, packaging technologies have been measured on how well they protected products. Today, in addition to its core functionalities, packaging is evaluated by criteria ranging from brand-building and marketing capabilities to making life easier for users.

    Cryovac, for one, has launched innovations aimed at consumers as well as back-of-house operations for grocers. The company’s vacuum barrier bags now feature QuickRip (for back-room applications) and Grip & Tear (for consumer applications) easy-open capabilities that eliminate the need for knives or scissors to access package contents.

    Cryovac also has enhanced the capabilities of its Oven Ease packaging to deliver consistent, quality meals to consumers more efficiently. “While the Oven Ease format is most commonly associated with consumers preparing meat at home directly inside an ovenable package, more retail foodservice teams are using this format to cook and serve to-go items,” Kelly notes. “As a result, these teams spend less time on preparation and cleanup while accommodating growing consumer demand for convenient fresh meals.”

    Further, as heat-and-eat and grab-and-go meals become more popular, “we’ve upgraded our Simple Steps ready-meals packaging for functionality — thanks to tighter films that preserve freshness — and merchandising appeal, to help retailers capture consumer attention,” Kelly adds.

    For items that might need to be reheated at home, such as rotisserie chickens sold hot but that might cool off on the ride home, Ralphs’ Wilson looks for dual-purpose packaging, “so customers don’t have to take out the food and put it in something else to heat it.”

    Lenexa, Kan.-based Robbie Flexibles answers that need with its microwave-ready rotisserie chicken pouch, which also offers a convenient carrying handle, a broad canvas for branding, and visibility of the food inside.

    Sustainable Advances

    Amid the needs for convenience and functionality is the overarching demand for eco-friendliness.

    “The eco piece is going to be big, and we need to solve that,” Wilson asserts. And she knows of what she speaks, being from California, a state that just outlawed the tried-and-true plastic grocery bag and has led the charge in other sustainability efforts.

    St. Louis-based Anchor Packaging Inc. offers a new option for grocers looking for an alternative to foam boxes for the hot bars in their deli and prepared food departments. Anchor has added Culinary Squares separate bases and lids to its hinged Culinary Basics and Culinary Classics lines of high-heat polypropylene (PP) packages.

    Bases are made with renewable mineral additives, reducing the use of petroleum-based resin by up to 40 percent and joining other products in Anchor’s Nature’s Best line of sustainable products, all of which work well for hot foods held under heat lamps, chilled ready-to-heat meals in the microwave, and assorted cold food applications, according to the company.

    In addition, Anchor contends that the Culinary Squares lids will increase impulse sales, while the leak-resistant closures will prevent messy spills. Lids stay securely in place during handling and transport, and a single package for hot and cold foods reduces SKUs and inventory costs.

    As with its rotisserie packaging, Robbie has eco-friendliness covered with its Fresh N Tasty pouches for baked goods, a product the company also offers for fresh-cut produce. “Another thing about eco-friendly that often gets left out … is that it keeps the cookies fresher, so [consumers] don’t have to throw away the container and invest in another container,” says Doug Larson, EVP of sales at Robbie Flexibles, noting the opportunity for grocers to upsell this additional value to shoppers.

    And with cookie pouches geared toward kids, further repurposing at home seems inevitable, as Wilson observes: “It’s going to be hard to get this out of little kids’ hands once they make their minds up.”

    Packaging’s Future

    What future innovations are coming for fresh packaging?

    Wilson anticipates “a return to artisan versus parbaked” for the in-store bakery, requiring a package that reflects the high-end nature of specialty baked goods made on-premise. In addition, she envisions customizable themed “boxes” aimed at dinner or special-occasion customers, offering complete meals that include everything from food and wine to tableware, a true grab-and-go package.

    Cryovac’s Kelly says the look and capabilities of fresh food packaging have changed significantly during the past five to 10 years, “and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue, and maybe even accelerate, during the coming years.”

    With food waste reduction more critical, Kelly says, “active and intelligent packaging is poised to become more prevalent across the retail market.” Potential opportunities he singles out for growth in this area range from material enhancements — such as active-barrier films that deter oxygen and prevent products from spoiling — to analytics and data-monitoring capabilities that highlight how food was stored and transported.

    “The retail market could see indicators such as a color system on packaging that indicates whether products were properly stored and handled,” he says.

    Consumer awareness of sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging also will help shape the market moving forward. “As consumers become more mindful of their own carbon footprint, they likely will seek packaging that fits their desires for sustainability, in addition to quality and convenience,” Kelly says.

    Mortensen wants to see broader adoption of vacuum packaging. “We can no longer afford to cut a steak on Friday and throw it away on Monday because it is not appealing or because it is leaking, especially when it is still a good product,” he says. “It is a travesty and very costly to throw fresh food away. We all end up paying for these inefficiencies.”

    By Jim Dudlicek, EnsembleIQ
    • About Jim Dudlicek As editor-in-chief of Progressive Grocer, Jim Dudlicek oversees daily operations of the magazine, spearheads its signature features, produces PG’s monthly Trend Alert newsletter on center store issues, moderates its regular webcast series, and writes and comments about a wide range of grocery issues. A food industry journalist since 2002, Jim came to PG in June 2010 after covering the dairy industry for 7½ years, during which time he served as chief editor of Dairy Field and Dairy Foods magazines. A graduate of Marquette University, Jim is fascinated by how truly progressive grocers inspire consumers to enjoy food, transforming the industry from mere merchants into educators that can take the most basic of all necessities and turn it into something profound and life-enhancing.

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