Shoppers have been working up a healthy appetite for portion-controlled products lately. While smaller packages are by no means a new concept, new twists on the single-serve concept — such as the 100-calorie snack packs that became an instant hit in grocery aisles — demonstrate how the concept is evolving, even as it becomes more popular.
Today's shoppers are turning to portion-controlled products for a variety of reasons. They may be watching their calories. They may want the convenience of snacking on-the-go. Single or two-person households may prefer smaller, resealable packages, because they don't want food to go to waste when they get it home. And these trends are all converging in fresh food departments to present shoppers with a broad new array of options for entrees, desserts, sides, snacks and even produce.
“Our experience indicates that customers are looking for convenient, resealable packaging that keeps the product as fresh as possible and is easily stored in the refrigerator,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets , Lakeland, Fla.
“From a produce perspective, our customers are very concerned about a healthful diet, and yet they appreciate convenience. This type of product offering has been quite successful. We use clamshell packaging, with and without individual compartments, resealable bags and packages of single-serve product, such as Crunch Pak Apples, [the] Incredible Fresh line of products, Buddy Fruit and Snack Pack Carrots. Our customers desire freshness, quality and convenience.”
According to Mintel's most recent Packaging Trends in Food and Drink report, released in 2009, portion-controlled packaging has grown in popularity in the last few years. Roughly one-third of respondents to Mintel's consumer survey report using portion-control packaging, which helps consumers keep their calories in check and is conveniently packaged to use on-the-go.
Research on portion-controlled and single-serve products by the Hartman Group also indicates that consumers have had a long-term interest in seeing such products available at retail, especially in grocery stores, according to David Wright, a senior associate at the Bellevue, Wash.-based research consultancy.
“Part of this has to do with occasions where you see consumers approaching the store from a lunch or snack angle when they're not necessarily trying to fill up a grocery cart, or it's a one- or two-person household and they're looking for what amounts to be the opposite of ‘the family pack,’” Wright said.
And demand for portion-controlled fresh foods — particularly fruits and vegetables — appears to be growing. In an unaided-format survey, the Hartman Group asked shoppers what single-serve products they most desired. The top 10 most-requested single-serve products were roughly balanced among indulgence, snacking and health-oriented foods. The top five most-cited products, in order, were: cookies, chips, vegetables, fresh fruits and crackers.
Retailers are beginning to see increased demand for these products in their fresh food departments.
“We definitely have seen an increase in the interest in what we can consider single-serving packaging,” Kathy Neufarth, director of consumer affairs for Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, told SN.
“In other words, instead of buying a whole cheesecake, [customers] can buy a single slice of cheesecake that's packaged and ready to go.”
DLM also sells half loaves of bread in its bakery, in addition to half pies and half cakes. In its produce departments, the retailer carries single-serve sizes of sliced apples and smaller containers of fresh-cut fruits that it cuts and packages itself.
“We've pretty much gotten everything to the point where someone who is alone or maybe just two people could make a purchase, [and] they wouldn't have to eat it every day for the next week to eat it up,” Neufarth added. “Our customers ask for these, especially the more elderly customers; they definitely ask for smaller packaging. I think it's been going on for probably the past year or more; we've been making a lot of changes that way. It's been ongoing, it didn't just happen yesterday.”
Brookshire Grocery Co.  has recently launched a line of single-serve cheesecakes, which has received good customer response, John Rose, bakery category manager for the Tyler, Texas, retailer, told SN. They will also be offering a “cake for two” later this summer, he said.
Portion control is also being implemented in the deli department at BGC.
“We were using a one-half slab rib container that we … carried in our stores, and the problem with it was the size,” said Dennis Price, deli category manager for BGC, explaining that the package was too large and carried a high supply cost.
“When you filled it up to look appealing, it was too much food and the retail price gave our customers sticker shock. This new smaller entree container will serve two people easily, and possibly a third child. The retail price point is a lot more manageable and allows a customer to buy maybe two entrees for a variety at a reasonable cost.”
The new container costs about one-fourth of what the larger container cost. And, it's oven safe and microwaveable, which has helped it become very popular, Price added.
Similarly, in an effort to accommodate various portion needs, Publix also offers three sizes for several of its most popular deli salads, Brous told SN. The salads are available in 8-ounce, 16-ounce and 32-ounce sizes.
“For other products, we determine what will be the best size to accommodate the largest range of needs,” Brous said. “We will usually opt for the smallest reasonable package to ensure the product is eaten within the optimal time frame for quality and taste.”
United Supermarkets  also has been using single-serve and portion-controlled containers for its chilled prepared foods for a while now, and these smaller containers have become an important part of its foodservice and deli operations, said Diane Earl, business director of food service for the Lubbock, Texas-based retailer.
“They have certainly been effective in our foodservice operation with our [prepared] foods, which means they could be equally effective in other departments, especially bakery and produce,” Earl said. “There certainly seems to be a trend toward providing materials which support portion control and food preparation for fewer numbers of people.”
THE SUPPLY SIDE
Suppliers have recognized these trends as well. The Perishables Group recently surveyed suppliers for a packaging study, and many said they would like to see more single-serve options from packaging manufacturers, according to Kari Volyn, vice president of marketing for the West Dundee, Ill.-based independent consulting firm.
“Snacking items are among the fastest-growing segments of the fresh-cut category,” she said. Snacking items appeal to children and adults; there is something for everyone in a package that is easy to grab and go.”
Volyn pointed towards Mann Packing's healthy snacks on-the-go and Crunch Pak's Snacker lines as notable examples.
“Both provide healthy, single-serve options for ‘desk-side’ dining,” she said.
Mann Packing also offers a lettuce product called Mann's Simply Singles, which comes in three varieties of lettuce. The resealable containers make it easy for consumers to use smaller portions for cooking, and then store the remainder of the product.
“Consumers can use as many lettuce leaves as they want, leaving the remaining leaf singles in the durable clamshell for future use,” said Elena Hernandez, spokeswoman for the Salinas, Calif.-based packer.
“Advancement in packaging has definitely expanded consumers' options for eating fresh-cut vegetables any time of day, and at any portion size they desire. The trend is versatility, portability and functionality. Consumers are willing to pay more for a fresh-cut vegetable product if they are able to use more than just the vegetables.”
While foods packaged in single-serve and portion-controlled containers typically cost more, industry experts agreed that some customers are willing to pay a little more per ounce for the convenience, and to keep from having to throw food out. And, smaller packages can give retailers and suppliers the flexibility to hit a specific, lower price point for an item.
For example, one supplier, Crunch Pak, realized the effect of the recession on consumer buying patterns and offered its snack packs of various produce items at a price of 99 cents per bag.
“It was almost like a trial package, it was a good value, people could mix and match, and so we lowered the introductory price, so to speak, of our product rather than having that initial sticker shock of $3.99 or $4,” said Tony Freytag, spokesman for Crunch Pak.
The snack packs were originally offered in clamshells of five single-serve bags. The supplier manufactures single-serve bags of sliced apples with caramel dip, carrot sticks with ranch dressing, and now grapes.
To illustrate how quickly the trend is growing, Freytag noted that as little as three years ago, small packages, which Crunch Pak defines as 5 ounces or less, used to comprise only 25% of the company's business in packaged count. Today, small packages account for over 45% of its business.
“We're 10 years old now, and the convenience factor was the original driving force [behind our growth],” he said.
“In the beginning, healthy eating was a factor, but it wasn't a significant factor. It is now, and I think that will continue to grow.”