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Did you know about 55 percent of women depend on the convenience of frozen foods when getting dinner on the table?
That's according to the Harrisburg, Pa.-based National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, referencing its own consumer surveys revealing that freshness is the most important food packaging feature shoppers look for; 92 percent of primary or shared shoppers indicate a product that retains freshness is an important food packaging feature, and 82 percent indicate resealable or reclosable packaging is important.
"More than half of households have both parents working outside the home," notes Julie Henderson, VP of communications for the NFRA, citing the group's state-of-the-industry report. "New roles, new rules and new traditions are emerging when it comes to how households shop, cook and eat. Men and women shoppers choose products differently."
There's a movement toward more natural-looking and transparent packaging, according to Roz O'Hearn, communications and brand affairs director for Solon, Ohio-based Nestlé USA. That means a greater use of natural packaging materials (such as paperboard, paper bags and clear plastic) and matte-finish graphics picturing natural materials (like slate or wood).
O'Hearn says Nestlé's Lean Cuisine brand is leveraging this trend by converting to transparent trays and new packaging graphics featuring natural materials. But there's a challenge: "Some more natural materials do not merchandise as well and do not maintain product freshness as well," she notes. "Some categories with small individual package sizes are difficult to merchandise as well (i.e., yogurt)."
To address this, O'Hearn explains, Nestlé has launched products like Stouffer's mac-and-cheese cups in a two-pack, a format that she says provides improved merchandising and greater shopper communication opportunity.
Meanwhile, shelf-ready trays are gaining in popularity. "We see many private label items in shelf-ready packaging, as well as some national brands moving that direction," O'Hearn says. This type of packaging serves several purposes, she explains: It helps reduce labor at store level, highlights product attributes on the shelf-ready tray, and provides improved product organization and thus easier navigation for shoppers.
Many consumers don't have the time or the energy to prepare the homemade meals like Mom used to make, so they're willing to pay for the added value convenience of a ready meal that retailers can provide, according to Randy Poznansky, president of Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based packaging supplier Rpak Ltd.
"This would be either a complete meal in one package or the components of a full meal in multiple packages -- for example, the enchiladas in one tray, the beans in another and the rice in another tray," he says. "Affordable luxury' means consumers are willing to pay a little more for added-value packaged meals that have the ability to go from the retail shelf to the oven and to the kitchen table all in the same package. The ideal package makes it look as if the meal was prepared from scratch rather than purchased from a retail store. This provides added value for the consumer who is serving the meal, as well as the individuals who are receiving the meal. Homemakers still want their family to feel that there was care and attention given to preparing a meal."
Poznansky adds that retailers desire recyclable packaging that can provide the maximum shelf life with the highest profit attainable. "They must be safe, easy for the consumer to use, and be compatible with all types of heating environments like microwave, oven and even the barbecue," he notes.
Of course, no one packaging style or material meets every criterion for every food type or situation. "Grocers should select the most recyclable package for the particular food product that provides the most added value and affordable luxury for the consumer," Poznansky says, noting that retailers shouldn't be afraid to invest in tray sealers that can be used on plastic, paper or aluminum trays.
"Modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) will provide longer shelf lives with tamper evidence while also providing a cleaner look to the package," he observes. "Automated tray sealers are available for large commissary situations, while small table-top tray sealers can be used in small commissaries or behind the deli counter. Either option will allow the retailer to offer a sealed ready meal to the consumer."
What's the next big thing on the horizon in refrigerated and frozen food packaging?
Says Poznansky: "Meal kits offered in convenient packaging will likely continue to be the more popular products sold to the customer. Whether frozen or refrigerated, these products should provide an easy formula for the end user to have some participation in the preparation of a meal, while making it quick, easy, healthy and convenient. This can address the demand for both individual and family meals. Most health-conscious consumers desire meals that offer a healthy vegetable alternative, and packages with mixed raw, fresh vegetables able to be cooked off in the oven, microwave or grill. These vegetable grillers continue to gain in popularity."