BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Markets this month will roll out completely biodegradable deli containers made of corn to its stores nationwide.
After testing the containers in its Northwest division, the 78-unit, natural foods supermarket chain took them into its Denver division this fall. Feedback in both markets -- in the form of sales and comments -- was exceptionally positive, officials said.
"The reaction from both employees and customers was just beyond our expectations, and as a result, we saw our deli sales go up noticeably in those two markets," said Sonja Tuitele, Wild Oats spokeswoman.
Undoubtedly, coverage by the local consumer media helped drive customers into Wild Oats' delis. The chain delivered press kits, along with a deli salad in the corn-based containers, to local radio and television stations and to newspaper offices, and that stirred up interest.
In Portland, Ore., TV stations sent reporters and camera crews into the chain's stores, and CNN picked up one of the station's stories for national airing. Newspapers, too, sent their camera people. In fact, the Denver Post did a major story on it.
The coverage prompted a representative from the local Environmental Protection Agency office to ask for the name of the supplier, saying he felt the EPA's cafeteria should be using them, Tuitele said.
The media also pointed out that Wild Oats is the first retailer in North America to use the product.
"When [customers] first heard about them, the expectation was that the package would be more like a corn husk. They thought it would be a rough, brownish package, and some asked if they could eat it. When they found it was clear, and looked like plastic and felt like plastic, they liked the novelty of it. They said it was remarkable," Tuitele said.
At store level, the chain makes customers aware of the new packaging in three ways. Large, colorful banners -- with a picture of an ear of corn and a container resembling plastic -- hang on the fronts of the stores and proclaim, "Every revolutionary idea begins as a kernel. Containers made of corn now in our delis." Then, signs in the deli deliver the same message, and a tri-fold brochure for consumers tells the production story -- how cornstarch is extracted from corn, distilled and melted down to make the see-through containers. Tuitele explained the new packaging, in addition to being biodegradable, is environmentally friendly on the front end since it's made from corn, an annually renewable source.
Wild Oats produced the promotional materials for the stores.
"The supplier gave us all the information, but we wanted to design our own to fit in with our stores," Tuitele said.
As soon as Wild Oats was approached by the containers' manufacturer, NatureWorks, PLA, Cargill Dow LLC, based in Minnetonka, Minn., chain officials knew they wanted to try it. The new product dovetailed with the chain's strong environmental and social consciousness, Tuitele said.
"First, we tested them -- in the 11 stores in our Northwest region -- for functionality and consumer acceptance.
We wanted to see if they functioned as well as the plastic containers we had been using. There are some limitations. For example, you can't use them for hot food, and you can't put them in a microwave because they would melt," she said. "We wanted to make sure there was no confusion either on the part of the employee or the consumer because we do sell some hot food items," Tuitele said.
The containers, shaped just like their predecessor plastic ones -- rectangles with rounded corners -- are being used in three sizes at Wild Oats. In addition to the delis, the produce and bakery departments have started using them, Tuitele said.
"We're using them for all our deli salads, for cut produce, cheese, for some bulk products like our [fresh-ground] peanut butter and almond butter, even on the salad bar. For liquids and hot foods, we still use the plastic containers," Tuitele said.
Wild Oats uses six million plastic containers annually, and by the end of March most will be replaced by the corn-based ones, according to Tuitele. The chain's central division will be next to get them.
They cost a little more than petroleum-based, plastic packages, but so far Wild Oats has not passed the additional cost onto customers. That could change, however, when the containers become standard throughout the chain. "We're confident our customers would support [the additional cost]," Tuitele said.
Meanwhile, as the price of crude oil has risen, the cost gap between the corn-based containers and traditional ones has narrowed.