FORM AND FUNCTION

Packaging plays a number of roles in satisfying the appetites of consumers, retailers and food marketers for convenience, efficiency and product visibility. New bags, boxes and trays that are coming to market as microwavable, resealable, leak-resistant and compostable provide consumers with easy handling, preparation and storage, but the benefits of innovative packaging can be an advantage for retailers

Packaging plays a number of roles in satisfying the appetites of consumers, retailers and food marketers for convenience, efficiency and product visibility. New bags, boxes and trays that are coming to market as microwavable, resealable, leak-resistant and compostable provide consumers with easy handling, preparation and storage, but the benefits of innovative packaging can be an advantage for retailers as well.

For example, a meat and seafood bag that's been used in European supermarkets for years is coming to the States. Alpem's “Valencia” bag saves meat department associates time, said Yves Lajeunesse, president of UIC USA, a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based distributor and broker.

Instead of placing a meat or seafood item on a foam tray and wrapping it with clear film, retailers can simply drop the item in the opaque bag, remove a strip and seal it up for the shopper to take home. Retailers can print their own labels, coupons or recipes on the outside of the bag. It does not leak and will keep meat and seafood cool, since it has thermal properties. Consumers also can use it to store the product in the freezer without fear of freezer burn.

The Valencia bags will hit U.S. supermarkets some time in the next two to three months. Furthermore, several food retailers in Canada are testing it or intend to test it in their stores, he said.

Another new item that promises benefits to both shoppers and retailers is the packaging for Butterball's new fully cooked fried turkey breast tenderloins. Cooked in-store, the tenderloins are packaged in a bright blue bag with a built-in handle and zipper for resealing. It can also take the heat — the bag is designed for use in deli department hot cases. It doesn't get hot, so shoppers can pick it up without fear of getting burned.

“The best thing this bag will do for our product is it'll really stand out to consumers coming up to the prepared food section,” said Chris Bekermeier, brand manager of Butterball's deli division. “That deep Butterball blue is noticeable from 20 feet away. It creates attention and conveys the brand very well.”

Designed by Appleton, Wis.-based Curwood, the bag is being tweaked a bit. The window will be enlarged for better product visibility and it will get an anti-fog film to reduce condensation, which was a concern raised by retailers, Bekermeier said.

Retailers and other show-goers got to sample the turkey at Butterball's booth at the International Dairy-Deli-Bake show in Anaheim, Calif., in June. Based on the response, officials are optimistic about the product's future, Bekermeier said. Boneless and skinless, the turkey tenderloins will be promoted as an alternative to rotisserie chicken. Cooks in the deli departments prepare the meat using fryers in store kitchens that might otherwise go unused between lunch and dinner rushes. The tenderloins can be displayed in the hot case for up to four hours.

Retailing for about $5.99 a pound, the product is scheduled to arrive in supermarkets in mid-August. To promote sales, Butterball will encourage retail chains to conduct countertop sampling activities, Bekermeier said.


CONSUMER CONVENIENCE

The grab-and-go attitude continues to drive innovation for lunchtime items as well. According to a company survey, 70% of Americans work straight through lunch or break for only five to 10 minutes. In response, Oscar Mayer's new “Deli Creations” line is the company's answer to a fast, hot lunch in a box for consumers with very little time to spare for a meal in the middle of the day.

The sandwich kits, consisting of bread, meat, cheese and specialty sauces, are packaged in colorful cartons, which include a specially designed, microwave receptor paperboard tray. Consumers can remove the package from their refrigerators, microwave the sandwich and have a hot sandwich 60 seconds later. The tray, developed by Marietta, Ga.-based Graphic Packaging International, has laminated quilts, or pockets, which work in the microwave to heat the bread to an appealing consistency while melting the cheese and warming the meat at the same time. Graphic Packaging also produced the outer cartons, which are printed in seven colors.

“The product has only been on shelves for three months, and the initial reaction has been very positive,” said Chris Carlisle, senior brand manager for the line.

Available at stores nationwide, the line consists of five sandwiches — shaved oven roasted ham and cheddar, shaved turkey and cheddar Dijon, shaved honey ham and Swiss, shaved turkey Monterey and shaved steakhouse cheddar. Each one has a suggested retail price of $2.99.

Oscar Mayer, a division of Kraft Foods, used a similar tray for Oscar Mayer Fast Franks, which are kits containing frankfurters with buns that can be heated up in the microwave.

To generate interest and sales, the company has conducted sampling events in stores in several cities. Officials were encouraged by the feedback they got from shoppers, Carlisle said.

“They really like the convenience and ability to have a hot lunch,” Carlisle said.

For shoppers tired of handling and storing open bags of messy meat, Oscar Mayer is about to roll out sliced bacon packaged in a reclosable tray at supermarkets across the country. The 12-ounce Center Cut Bacon in the new “Stay-Fresh” reclosable tray will retail for about $3.99, which is no higher than a comparable product in a traditional package, according to the company, which noted it's the first high-quality packaging innovation of its kind in the bacon category.

The product “is designed to combat consumer dissatisfaction with traditional bacon packaging — hard to open, not resealable, messy to remove bacon and cumbersome storage because the packaging could not be reclosed,” a company spokeswoman said.

Consumers, however, can have mixed feelings about food packaging, one industry consultant noted.

“You've got one side of the coin where the consumer wants things that are microwavable, ready-to-eat, resealable or in smaller portions,” said JoAnn Hines, the so-called “packaging diva” who is president of the Packaging University, a Kennesaw, Ga.-based consulting firm.

“The other side of the coin is, people are saying there's too much packaging.”

While the desire for convenience trumps concern for the environment for the majority of shoppers, Hines thinks the outlook for both types of packaging is healthy.


ECO-FRIENDLY

Environmentally friendly packaging has continued to gain momentum in the market as consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental consequences of their consumption choices. Because of this, retailers will find it beneficial to carry convenience-oriented eco-friendly alternatives.

Sealed Air Corp. hopes to tap into the demand for green packaging with what it's billing as the first foam tray in the U.S. created with polylactic acid polymers from NatureWorks, a division of Cargill. Cryovac's NatureTRAY is made entirely from corn, and can be used by supermarkets to package meat, poultry and fish, as well as produce and dry goods. The sustainable tray can be used on any standard automated in-store wrapping equipment in supermarkets.

According to the company, the tray provides all the benefits of traditional polystyrene foam trays, but can be composted in any industrial compost facility. It is available in a range of sizes and comes in a natural, unpigmented white color.

“Our partnership with NatureWorks has enabled us to create a tray for supermarkets made entirely from an annually renewable resource,” said Richard Douglas, marketing director for rigid packaging and absorbents for Sealed Air's Cryovac Food Packaging. “The Cryovac NatureTRAY keeps with consumer demand for sustainable packaging.”

For Alpem, its thermal, leakproof Valencia bag is also recyclable, and Lajeunesse said he believes that feature alone will score high marks with certain consumers. Retailers are increasingly hearing from shoppers who want to steer clear of polystyrene foam trays and other materials that don't degrade, he noted.

“Everybody we're talking to is saying we have a lot of pressure from consumers” to discontinue polystyrene foam trays, Lajeunesse said.

Hines agreed that the outlook is bright for products that deliver on convenience while having minimal impact on the environment.

“We've just started on our green journey,” she said. The potential for green packaging “is stronger than it's ever been.”


Keeping Score

Thousands of companies that supply Wal-Mart Stores are under pressure to reduce, eliminate or improve their product packaging.

The retailer and its suppliers are keeping tabs on the progress. Wal-Mart devised a Web-based packaging “scorecard” for companies to evaluate the materials they use, based on criteria such as greenhouse gas emissions related to production, product-to-packaging ratio, recycled content usage and emissions related to transportation of the packaging materials. Beginning next year, Wal-Mart said buyers will be able to use the scorecard results to “influence their purchasing decisions.” The retailer will use the system to make progress toward achieving a 5% reduction in packaging by 2013.

Since its debut in February, the scorecard has gotten a lot of use. To date, nearly 3,000 suppliers and more than 7,800 products have been entered into the system, a Wal-Mart spokesman said. Companies can use the program to evaluate their own materials and see how they stack up against those used by industry peers.

Naturally, Wal-Mart's initiative is expected to have a profound effect on the sustainable packaging movement.

“They've affected how things are moving on this in the U.S.,” said Erin Malec, director of external relations at GreenBlue, a Charlottesville, Va.-based nonprofit that operates the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “All their suppliers are going to have to adjust their packaging if needed. The Wal-Mart scorecard will be a catalyst for all their suppliers.”

Companies from across the board are focusing increased attention on the environmental impact of product packaging and shipping materials. The SPC's growth as an organization demonstrates the trend. When the industry group started in 2003, it had nine members from the business community. Now more than 130 companies belong, including Kraft Foods, McDonald's, Earthbound Farm, Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.
— L.M.