May, 2012

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Consumer Attitudes Toward Packaged Fruits & Vegetables

By Rich Thoma, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Yerecic Label

Consumer lifestyles are busier and more hectic than ever, and we know they are on the look-out for products that speak directly to their needs. Convenient and simple solutions are important factors in consumer purchase decisions, and growing interest in healthy lifestyles has created an increased demand for convenient and enticing fresh foods. This presents the produce industry with new opportunities to look for innovative ways to appeal to consumers with packaging and label design, giving produce a fresh voice that speaks directly to consumers’ needs. 

In a collaborative effort to explore the truth behind this industry-wide opportunity, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Yerecic Label and the Perishables Group (PG) completed a research study focusing on consumer behavior and preferences toward packaged produce. The three-phase study consisted of an Internet consumer survey, in-store consumer intercepts and in-store consumer video interviews.

Survey And Study Findings

All three phases of this study revealed a number of similar insights about consumers and packaged produce. We know that consumers are buying fresh produce frequently; more than 80 percent claim to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables weekly. Of this 80 percent, consumers say 15 percent or less is packaged. The most important driving factors for purchasing packaged fresh produce are price and cleanliness, with nutritional information and convenience not far behind.

When it comes to packaged produce, nearly 90 percent of consumers say the most important attribute is the ability to preserve freshness and taste. Consumers also like packaging that protects the product and stores easily in the refrigerator.

Consumers indicate that where print occurs on a package or label, size is important because they wish to be able to inspect the produce before purchase. In addition, consumers also indicated that they are attracted to packages displaying:

  • Imagery that offers cooking inspiration
  • Recipes that call for commonly known ingredients
  • Nutritional information
  • Clearly marked sell-by-date
  • Information about where the product is grown

Surveys revealed that convenience is the main reason consumers choose packaged produce over bulk items, but one of the main reasons consumers are deterred from purchasing packaged items are the perceived higher price and the inability to see or inspect produce through the packaging.

More than half of consumers surveyed prefer packaging that is environmentally friendly. As consumers become more conscious about the environment, packaging that indicates it is recycled, recyclable and biodegradable is preferred.

Consumers also revealed that they are not going far to find information about fresh produce, with more than half saying their information is gained in the store while shopping. These insights indicate that the content found on produce packaging and labels is paramount.

Label Findings

During the in-store intercepts, consumers were randomly shown different cauliflower and Brussels sprouts labels created by Yerecic Label. The new labels contained the imagery and information that consumers in previous perishable research stated that they desire to see.

A majority of consumers stated that they are attracted to the recipe on the cauliflower label as well as the picture of the cauliflower dish. When asked to name the most important factors on a label that impact their purchase decision, consumers stated that nutrition information and recipes with an associated image are the most enticing.

Two-thirds of consumers said they were attracted to the Brussels sprouts on-label recipe, and more than half said they like the picture and the brand image. Consumers said the most important factors on the label that influence their purchase decision are the recipe, nutrition information, and image of the prepared dish.

Items Consumers Would Like to See Packaged

More than half of shoppers interviewed stated that everything they need can already be found as a packaged product. Of those interested in seeing more packaged products, apples and lettuce/greens are the most highly requested. Other responses include citrus, bananas, and avocados.

Industry Implications

This study shows that consumers want to see more packaged produce in an effort to add convenience and simplicity to their daily routine. Consumers seek to find information and inspiration about the product directly on the package. The research concluded that consumers would be motivated to purchase a fresh packaged product when imagery and simple recipes are prevalent on the label. Price continues to be the biggest deterrent to purchasing packaged produce, so produce companies should find ways to offer the consumer multiple reasons to purchase their product by applying innovative design and labeling to their products that indicates convenience, nutrition, inspiration and the ability to preserve freshness and taste.


Are Consumers Confused About Packaging Vs. Processing?

The issue of packaging and fresh produce gets confusing fast. Partly this is because the terminology is awkward. When consumers tell researchers that the key attribute of packaged produce is its ability to preserve freshness and taste, or that convenience is the main reason they select packaged produce, one doesn’t know if they are reporting on reality (the produce that is packaged is selected to be packaged precisely because packaging has these attributes — thus salads are placed in packages and not sold as bulk products) or if they actually are expressing a preference for the kind of products consumers prefer to see packaged.

Suggestions that things such as recipes are important attributes of packaging seem to be general statements that, in reality, are likely to vary substantially with the novelty of the product in question. It does not seem accidental that companies such as Frieda’s and Melissa’s use a lot of recipes as they sell many specialty items that consumers would not know what to do with otherwise.

Consumer responses are somewhat cryptic because the responses seem to be referring to different things. The chart on page 18 indicates that the No. 1 thing holding consumers back from purchasing more packaged produce is a “higher price,” which leads one to think that consumers are responding not to the issue of packaging but the issue of processing. After all, lower priced items are often packaged — bagged apples, potatoes, onions — and are generally sold cheaper, at least on a per pound basis, than bulk items.

Although many pricey items, say gourmet varieties of tomatoes, may be packaged, these are not the same items as are sold more cheaply in bulk. One can only imagine that consumers are referring to packaged salads and cut vegetables and, perhaps, cut fruit, and comparing these items to uncut versions of these products, noting that the cut versions are comparatively pricey. This is true, but not really a function of packaging. Costco sells a lot of packaged produce and because it sells multi-packs, it often can sell less expensively than if it were selling bulk.

Consumer research is often problematic because consumers may know what they want, but they don’t always know the real choices that have to be made. For example, it is unlikely that the one recipe on a package is going to be the one for each individual consumer. Even if they express a preference — in abstract — for recipes on the package, consumers may actually be saying they would like all the information desired — such as the perfect recipe — spoon-fed right on the package. But if that can’t be delivered, if the recipe won’t change frequently enough or is likely to be too bland and generic to appeal to the tastes of many, then maybe the space is better spent driving people to a web site where what they really want can actually be made available.

This research project is impressive, but the missing link is obvious as well. The Perishables Group has access to an incredible data pool: actual scan data from loads of supermarkets. One wonders if there is any data that indicates that, for instance, giving information beyond the legal requirement detailing “where the product is grown,” for example, actually produces higher sales?

In the absence of such hard data, we would speculate that consumer attitudes toward packaging are likely to be heavily influenced by the marketing that goes along with it. The farmstand look is appealing, but it is not obvious to us that some retailer couldn’t gain an edge by washing all its produce, selling it in bags, trays or clamshells and promoting it as “sanitized.”

Another approach is to worry less about the attributes that consumers report they want on packaging and more about value perception. Black labels and trays with gold type create an upscale image that might justify premium prices. The sturdy nature of certain packaging, say, a clamshell, tends to imply to consumers that the item inside is of value and importance.

Packaging also seems likely to influence a sale when it can substantively solve a problem. So a resealable bag, for example, can lengthen shelf-life in a consumer’s home.

Obviously, the best packaging is that which creates value for the consumer, yet value can be created in unexpected ways. For example, there is almost no possibility that Clementine sales would have reached the levels they have, save that Clementines are mostly sold boxed or bagged with minimum quantities. That packaging creates a minimum purchase level that catapulted the item out of a specialty niche and into a mass market. Many a family would never have realized that they would regularly consume three or five pounds of the fruit if that had not been the only purchase option.

Health-conscious consumers certainly want nutrition information. But, unlike manufactured products, most marketers of produce sell items with identical nutritional attributes. So it is difficult to get a competitive edge by providing nutritional information. Maybe the real idea is that labels and packaging provide a tool to promote attributes if breeding programs can produce a competitive nutritional edge.

The whole issue of asking consumers about packaging is constrained by the difficulty of consumers imagining things that don’t exist. Imagine consumers saying that they wanted a bag that would be able to control gas intake and output so that produce could be cut, yet still stay fresh. Yet it was that technological advance in packaging that spawned the fresh-cut salad industry. One wonders what consumers aren’t asking for that they would really like?