Like a young man in a suit picking up your daughter on a first date, first impressions also count when it comes to supermarket fresh meals: The subject better look clean, fresh and well-dressed, or it's no sale. More than anything else, packaging has become one of the primary tools retailers use in selling the fresh message to their customers.Survey after survey has shown that many consumers remain

Like a young man in a suit picking up your daughter on a first date, first impressions also count when it comes to supermarket fresh meals: The subject better look clean, fresh and well-dressed, or it's no sale. More than anything else, packaging has become one of the primary tools retailers use in selling the fresh message to their customers.

Survey after survey has shown that many consumers remain wary of purchasing their meals from supermarkets because of the freshness question. To change that perception, retailers like Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., spent a lot of time and energy selecting the most effective packaging available.

"Our program is no-preservative, fresh, never-frozen, restaurant-style food," said Steve McKee, Price Chopper's director of food service. "Our mashed potatoes are real mashed potatoes. This is as good as or better than you can make at home. We use the packaging to communicate the freshness of the food."

Even if the food is just-prepared, the customer still has to be convinced. Aside from preparing it to-order directly in front of consumers, retailers are fast discovering that catchy graphics, bright colors and clear viewing windows can change the way people think about the fresh-meal cases.

"There are no rules these days when it come to packaging," said Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. "The question the consumer is asking is 'How can you make my life easier?' We're seeing some really fun answers to this question. All it takes to capture the consumer's attention is theater."

Indeed, dramatic packaging can catch the attention of even the most jaded of shoppers by surprising them with creativity. Most packaging can be adapted for unconventional uses: large bakery torte pans holding take-and-bake pizzas; yogurt cups with domes containing precut vegetables, fruit or other finger foods; or single-serve pizza boxes for pastries.

All that's missing is the fork or spoon, said Christison, noting that these value-added items -- more common in Europe than the United States -- are the next step in the evolution of packaging.

Even mason jars filled with soup and adorned with a swatch of decorative fabric can make a product stand out over the others in the meals section of a supermarket. "It's value-added fun, and the jars are reusable," said Christison.

The visibility of the food is key to boosting sales, according to Lynn Rosseth, manager of market development for the Food Service & Packaging Institute, Arlington, Va. "Some of the more successful [home-meal replacement] packages have clear lids and some sort of label on them. Consumers want to actually see the food before they take it home," she said. Rosseth added the most popular styles currently in demand by retailers are packages with deep pockets, compartments to keep food separated and lips on the containers to prevent spillover.

"Customers buy with their eyes, and if the packaging looks nice they're going to assume that what's inside the package is nice," Rosseth said.

But first, all those interviewed by SN agreed, every package must fulfill basic practicality requirements. These include package trays with compartments that keep the elements of a full meal separated, such as a sandwich with chips, vegetables, cookies, and a soda.

"It's all contained. It's convenient. The customer doesn't have to run all over the store. You've done it for them. Most successful retailers have a premade grab-and-go section," Christison said.

The trays can be personalized with brand images and labeling that's fully integrated with the packaging. "These are very attractive and the tamper-evident seal extends the shelf life of the product," said Brian Salus of Salus & Associates, a Richmond, Va.-based supermarket consulting firm.

Last year, Price Chopper developed a full line of Ready Meals that uses polymer packaging. The packaging is branded with the Price Chopper store and line logos, and decorated with photographs of fresh foods.

McKee said Price Chopper gave fresh-meals packaging careful consideration, particularly the labeling that is put on the front of the container and wraps around the bottom. "Educating the consumer is an integral part of the process," he noted.

Stackability is also critical, since it enables the finished product to be neatly displayed and helps employees stock cases in a timely, labor-efficient manner.

In addition, the packaging should also satisfy all sanitary and temperature requirements, which goes to the core of the public's reluctance to embrace supermarket fresh meals. Along with freshness, trust holds equal weight among consumers in deciding whether to purchase from a retail environment.

"The package has to be selected for the purpose intended and [to accommodate] how the food will be handled," said Salus.

Salus said that supermarket fresh-meals packaging mirrors the categories created by supermarkets: ready-to-eat, hot and cold; ready-to-heat; ready-to-prepare (ovenable and grillable step-savers); and ready-to-make (simplified recipe items). The packaging product lines that match the food item include such revolutionary designs as the dual-ovenable polymer paperboard trays used by Price Chopper, among other retailers.

At Urban Epicuria, a one-stop shop for freshly prepared foods that recently opened in West Hollywood, Calif., "there's nothing traditional about what we're doing," said Wayne Davis, company co-founder.

All the Urban Epicuria containers are customized, from the label to the logo. "We wanted to create a strong logo that we could build a brand around. There has been a good response to the packaging," Davis said. He added that each label has individualized instructions for each package, which includes reheating instructions, nutrition information and proper storage suggestions. Since all the dishes made in the store's kitchen are standardized, the data can be stored in a single computer connected to a label printer.

"Everything in the store is prepared [on-site], and a significant portion is [packaged] in dual-ovenable containers by Westvaco," he said.

Urban Epicuria also uses clamshell containers for cold foods. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based research firm, clamshell package sales are projected to increase an above-average 7.4% annually through 2002, due to the increase in prepared-foods sales as supermarkets increase their stake in the fresh-meals business.

The study said these containers, some dual-ovenable, add value to the prepared food because of the high visibility lids, and about three-quarters of the clamshell sales are for food markets.

While value-added features come with a price, the experts agree that the price is worth paying. "If you want to sell well, the appearance is very important," said Takuo Kataoka, head of the consulting firm M.C. Creation, San Francisco.

Kataoka ran a chain of sushi restaurants for many years and recently opened his Sushi West bar in a Bay Area unit of Safeway.

In his opinion, retailers are not spending enough on packaging and in the end this can reduce sales. "Packaging costs should be 5% to 10% of the total selling cost. People will pay for those luxuries," he said.

Salus of Salus & Associates puts those estimates even higher. "The old rule of thumb is 5% of the retail [long-term], but it might be at least 20% initially," he said.

Retailers tend to agree that investment in packaging is critical and should be carefully considered. "You offset the convenience and flexibility vs. cost," said Urban Epicuria's Davis. "Each item is unique for price."

McKee of Price Chopper added that fresh-meals packaging is very market-specific and should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

"Research groups have pointed out that HMRs are a growth category, but there is no silver bullet. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, and no one's come up with all the answers," he said.