February, 2010

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Consumers Rate Packaging

“No mess” and “readiness” are two things that today’s shoppers need and expect when shopping for produce. Once upon a time, the big choice in fresh produce was between packaged and bulk.

Pre-organic produce shoppers believed supermarkets sold packaged apples, potatoes and onions with the rotten ones on the bottom and the fresh ones on top. Publix Supermarkets in Florida was the only supermarket chain selling packaged produce that shoppers believed was uniformly perfect. Competitors featuring bulk produce advertised shoppers could choose their own fruits and vegetables from bulk displays and made building the displays into an art form that sometimes reached perilous heights.

The bulk-versus-packaged war is long over, and packaging has gained ground. Today’s shoppers worry about prices, E. coli and pesticide residue, but they don’t worry about rotten apples. In fact, everyone in the supply chain deserves kudos for the trust they have earned for the quality of what today’s shoppers routinely find in their packages.

The strongest example of this produce victory is the difference in perception of produce and meat packages. When it comes to buying fresh meat in a package, most shoppers skeptically expect it to be packaged “bad side down,” meaning they expect to find more fat and bone when they open the package and turn it over. Produce shoppers are much less likely to expect the bottom layers of strawberries to be moldy, or apples placed on the bottom to be rotten. It’s not totally a coincidence that meat and produce have changed places in the supermarket hierarchy, with produce, rather than meat, now being a primary factor in store choice and profit generation.

Some of the turnaround is attributed to produce packaging innovations that have made a difference in shoppers’ lives, and packaged salads are first among them. Millions of consumers regularly serve fresh salad at home with no more work than the flick of a pair of scissors. However, now that shoppers have taken them into their refrigerators, hearts, and meals on a regular basis, they grumble and gripe because the packages are hard to open and harder to reclose.

In a recent Consumer Network survey called Packaging Report Card 2009, shoppers were asked to rate the packaging in 60 food and beverage product categories. Only half of the respondents gave good marks to “Salad, bagged — refrigerated.”

In sharp contrast, more than 80 percent gave good marks to another refrigerated product, “Milk in cartons — screw cap.” It’s worth noting that shoppers hated the gable-topped cartons before the screw caps were inserted, and that the improved closures were pioneered by marketers of refrigerated juice, such as Tropicana, and not by any of the more traditional dairy companies.

Back to salad bags: There are at least seven reasons they received such low scores on our report card.

1. They make a mess. In the process of being opened, they have a tendency to spill out on the counter or table, which is precisely what shoppers are trying to avoid by buying them.

2. They don’t reclose, and today’s shoppers want and expect to be able to reseal perishable produce packages.

3. Their freshness dates are less than easy to read and considered by many shoppers to be of primary importance.

4. They go bad very quickly when closed with a clip.

5. Other “less important” produce items, such as berries, now have terrific packages. “So why don’t salads have good packages, too?”

6. They are not portable. Convenience stores are doing a great job of selling pre-cut vegetables and salads in on-the-go packages that fit most cars’ cup holders. The berry packages are fabulous — easy to open and store.”

7. There’s too much plastic in the produce department. “How can fresh produce be better for the planet with everything being wrapped in plastic?” Some packages for organic greens do have strong, eco-friendly selling points: “The Earth-Best organic greens come in a plastic box made from recycled bottles, which makes me feel great about buying it.”

The produce industry has come a long way to making eating and/or cooking with fresh produce as easy as possible. It is easy and delicious to have a fabulous soup meal with 30-second prep time by combining a package of fresh cut carrots, onions and celery with a can or carton of soup. Shoppers expect more packaging that makes fresh produce easier to use. No mess and readiness should be the guideposts for package and business development.

Voting With Dollars

Much like the conundrum of the chicken and the egg, when consumer concerns shift, it can be difficult to know if consumers now worry about what they do because their concerns have simply evolved or because the industry has done a good job of addressing their concerns.

If consumers no longer fear rotten produce at the bottom of the package, that may be due to three factors:

First, there is great consciousness in package design about allowing consumers to see the product from all sides. It is very difficult to even find old-style paper bags, as they have mostly been superseded by clear bags and clamshells.

Second, packing is better. Whether it is sturdy clamshells that provide more protection to the product or carefully designed gas permeable films and various absorbent pads that help maintain quality after being packaged, the packages of today are really not comparable to old-style packaging. Think about the old kraft strawberry pint containers and contrast them with new clamshells — no wonder Mona reports consumers used to worry about rotten fruit and no longer do so.

Third, much more packaging of produce is being done outside of the store. This is significant because a lot of in-store packaging was done as a way to reduce shrink on substandard produce. I can’t count how many hours I spent — when I worked at retail, back when food safety wasn’t the issue it is today — culling moldy berries and repacking the good ones or cutting off bad sections of melons to overwrap them. Today’s packaged produce is typically top quality; even items such as bagged apples may be a small size or a lower grade, but the condition is typically perfect when packed.

In many ways, Mona’s explanation of consumers’ critique of produce packaging is quite hopeful as these issues are all being addressed by the industry. Dole, for example, recently launched a line of packaged salads in a bag specifically designed not to burst and make a mess when being opened. Apio, under its Eat Smart brand, has launched a line it calls Simple Noodles — call it an American version of a Mirepoix soup — which includes a selection of fresh-cut vegetables with some noodles and a flavoring, or sauce. The produce is sold in a clever package that includes a spout for draining excess water and a pre-packaged fork. As Mona suggests, without any mess, one has a nice little noodle and vegetable meal in a couple of minutes.

Of course, consumer critiques can be a challenge. For example, Mona points out that consumers prefer resealable bags. Of course, that is easy to do today, so it is not a technological issue. The problem is that a resealable bag costs money. Will consumers actually pay sufficiently more to have their salad in a resealable bag? One has to believe that companies such as Fresh Express and Dole have researched this matter and, so far, the answer has come out in the negative.

This brings us to an issue with consumer research. It is sometimes said that the difference between politics and economics is that in politics, we learn what people want; in economics, we learn what people want most.

So it is easy to get consumers to vote in a focus group or survey for, say, resealable bags or sturdy clamshells — whether they will actually vote with their dollars for these products is a significantly different question.

The verdict may depend not only on the produce and the package, but on the marketing. Can consumers be persuaded that a resealable package will reduce spoilage, and thus waste, sufficiently to get consumers to pay more for the product? Is there a new utility to a package that consumers can be shown? If clamshells with berries get a boost because consumers like being able to wash the berries right in the clamshell, then claims of triple-washing the greens may negate the need — and thus the willingness to pay for — such a package in salads. But if washing is encouraged, then a package that allows for washing is a benefit.

It also seems valuable to add some quantification to the qualitative research. It is important to know that some consumers care that the plastic box is made from recycled plastic bottles, but whether that is a motivator for a niche line to be sold at Whole Foods or a prod for change in mass market products depends not on the sentiment but, rather, the frequency with which such thoughts are expressed and such feelings held.

Retailers have a special need to consider certain aspects of consumer research because an individual product can test well, but a sea of such products can impact consumer perceptions of a department or a whole store. Produce retailers have been aware of this problem for some time and have mostly phased out products that were once common in produce — fire logs, bird seed and the like.

Top produce directors stopped selling these products, despite good margins and, sometimes, guaranteed sale offers, because they detracted from the fresh image of the department. The challenge for retailers now is how to deal with a sea of plastic containers and packaging on products much more core to the department’s function.

Auto dealers typically display alluring red sports car convertibles to draw people in and then sell practical blue sedans. We probably should do some in-store consumer research. Perhaps those very practical berry clamshells would sell better surrounded by a display of bulk strawberries.