THE WHOLE PACKAGE

Easy-open cans, heat-in bags, resealable containers and other packaging that facilitates convenience are driving sales in Center Store. Some of the more significant changes include mass conversions to metal pop-top lids that once required a can opener, and a shift toward single-portion packaging, retailers told SN. Introductions of these innovatively packaged items are driving incremental sales at

Easy-open cans, heat-in bags, resealable containers and other packaging that facilitates convenience are driving sales in Center Store.

Some of the more significant changes include mass conversions to metal pop-top lids that once required a can opener, and a shift toward single-portion packaging, retailers told SN.

Introductions of these innovatively packaged items are driving incremental sales at Abingdon, Va.-based K-VA-T stores, according to Phillip Worley, director of grocery operations.

“Sales in the soup category have been up in our stores an average of 8% since the introduction of the Campbell's Soup at Hand line, and the new items haven't affected sales of the traditional packaged soups much,” he said. “The addition of Campbell's tomato and chicken soup bowls hasn't slowed sales of cans of soup at all, either.”

Both Campbell's soup lines feature pop-top lids, are microwavable and are designed to be consumed from their containers.

Other items that have Worley's attention are resealable bags of Pedigree Dog Food; Birds Eye Foods' Steamfresh frozen vegetables, which can be steamed in their microwavable bag; Wishbone Salad Spritzer spray pump salad dressings, which offer portion control; and new aluminum Budweiser and Michelob bottles from Anheuser-Busch that retain cold better, are easier to recycle and are more durable than glass bottles. Single-portioned products are also moving quickly.

“A lot of energy drinks are being merchandised in single 8-ounce cans or in four-packs of these cans,” Worley noted.

K-VA-T is adding 4- to 8-foot energy drink sections in 94 stores as a result. These will include a wide variety of single-serve cans.

Indeed, anything packaged in individual servings is hot right now, said Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill.

“Consumers are seeking out modular foods or foods assembled into individual serving sizes for snacking, eating on the go or that people can pull individually from a larger pack and make into a meal, depending on how many people are eating at a particular time,” he said. “Things like noodle dinners packaged in individual serving sizes seem to be very popular, and 100-calorie snack packs are everywhere.”

Single-serve bags of microwave popcorn are selling well at Price Chopper Supermarkets' stores, along with snack-sized Ziploc bags that allow shoppers to make individual servings of just about anything, said Mona Golub, spokeswoman for the Schenectady, N.Y.-based chain.

“Our category managers also favor baby wipes and travel wipes packaged in reclosable pop-top containers, condiments like ketchup, mustard and jelly in squeeze bottles, coffee and nuts with easy-peel freshness seals and powdered drink mixes like Kool-Aid that have measure level indicators directly in their lids,” she said. “Shelf-stable entrees, heat-and-eat desserts and spices with built-in grinders are also popular.”

Some innovatively packaged Center Store items have fared so well that Price Chopper is offering its own private-label versions of fresh-sealed packaged nuts and powdered drinks with measurement indicators in the lids. Soon the chain will begin merchandising private-label frozen vegetables that can be steamed in their bags.

The retailer also plans to replace its glass-bottled private-label products with plastic vessels.

“Glass is on the way out,” Golub said. “Everything from vinegar, oil and water to condiments and juices are being replaced with easy-grip plastic bottles.”

Conversions to easy-open metal cans that don't require a can opener are also under way. So far, these lids have penetrated 35% of the can application market, according to the Washington-based Can Manufacturers Institute. It projects this growth to continue to between 66% and 75% penetration by 2008.

When Del Monte Foods, San Francisco, converted to easy-open cans in 2004, the company reversed a downward trend and grew 2.4% in volume sales vs. the prior year, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

The Nestlé Food Co. experienced similar results after replacing its traditional 22-ounce Alpo cans of dog food with easy-open packaging. Its unit sales grew 2.9% compared to the previous year.

TEAR-OPEN POUCHES

The shelf-stable poultry and seafood category has also seen its share of new package innovations in recent years. Tuna and chicken products from San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods are being packed in tins with pop-top lids, and the company packages shelf-stable, precooked chicken breast, salmon and tuna in tear-open pouches. Although the contents only require 20 to 30 seconds of preparation in the microwave, the packaging isn't microwave-safe because it contains metal alloys.

“The trends in shelf-stable protein include convenience, portability and a big push toward health and nutrition,” said Dave Melbourne, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Bumble Bee Foods. “Most of our products have 1 or 1.5 grams of fat and are very portable, so they're the perfect healthy choice for a quick meal at home or to throw into a lunch box for mom, dad or the kids.”

Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets cross-merchandises a variety of innovatively packaged items in its stores. Such products are also featured as part of its Meal Idea of the Week sampling programs. Shoppers are invited to sample and purchase featured ingredients and take corresponding recipe cards.

Uncle Ben's Ready Rice, easy-to-open canned vegetables and fruits, and pouches of seafood are heavily promoted through the sampling program.

“Ready Rice provides convenience by packaging the product in a microwavable 8.8-ounce pouch that heats in just 90 seconds,” said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. “The microwavable pouch also provides the consumer with the added convenience of no preparation or cleanup by allowing them to pour the cooked product from pouch to plate.”

Crystal Light On The Go is also a big seller at Publix stores, having produced double-digit sales increases each year since the line's launch in 2004. These portioned packets are designed to be poured into half-liter bottles of water.

“The pouch segment of salmon and tuna has also grown significantly, and peak periods for us in this category, including display and additional impulse-driven sales, are during Lent and hurricane season,” Brous said.

Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y., told SN that many of the 108 stores in the company's chain are cross-merchandising McCormick's new Finishing Sauces — whose microwavable packages only require 45 seconds of preparation — in the meat department.

With the success of recent packaging innovations, retailers are anticipating the next wave of products to hit the market. Some are extensions of existing lines, including new varieties of Uncle Ben's Ready Rice, such as Vegetable Harvest, Santa Fe and Brown & Wild flavors.

HEAT AND EAT

K-VA-T is currently reviewing the self-contained, self-heating Hillside-branded coffee, cocoa and soup products that, with the push of a button on the packaging, heat the contents via exothermic reaction. The chain is scrutinizing the product carefully in the aftermath of the similarly packaged Wolfgang Puck-branded items that malfunctioned and had to be recalled several years ago.

Exothermic reactions involve water mixing with a powdered chemical substance, and some consumers complained about seeing some of the powder in the contents of the Wolfgang Puck containers. Other consumers claimed that the contents burned through the packaging and burned their hand, while one woman claimed that a can exploded in her face.

The Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., is working to improve the design of convenience packaging. A new technology that will make it easier for consumers to open bags of crackers, cereal and other dry products is among the projects in the works.

“One of the top drivers in innovation in packaging for grocery stores is convenience — anything that is easier to open or can be reclosed, used for other purposes and makes life easier or saves time,” said Jeff Wooster, senior value chain manager of flexible food and specialty packaging for Dow. “We're using Versify plastimers — the newest polymer technology — to produce seals that require less force to open, a technology that can be applied to any type of package that has a peel-off lid or two pieces of film that need separating.”

Wooster also noted the trend toward plastics instead of glass, stating that plastic containers offer the benefit of using far less material during packaging, which in turn increases the ratio of product to packaging, reduces the amount of material disposed of during manufacturing, and translates into improved profits for the manufacturer and retailer.

Flexible packaging is another creative product on the horizon. Ampac Flexibles, Cincinnati, has produced a new flexible pouch that is capable of holding liquids without leaking or spilling when inverted.

Consumers expel the liquid by squeezing the pouch or by drinking it through a valve. As the liquid is consumed, the packaging reduces in size.

The flexible pouches are currently used by Wasatch IceWater Co. and Gleukos, a sports performance beverage company.