Wholesale clubs are cultivating produce for sales to individual members by providing more consumer-friendly packaging.
Produce suppliers -- and their contract packagers -- are being presented with a wish list by clubs that includes prepackaged produce, smaller pack sizes and colorful graphics.
Observers said these demands stem from the reality that most produce sales are to individual club members rather than small businesses.
"The warehouse clubs recognize the importance of this expanding audience for produce," explained Roger Rasor, director of design marketing for International Paper's container division, Memphis, Tenn. "So they want produce packs that appeal to individuals and families."
To reach these members, clubs are primarily looking for convenience and product visibility in produce packaging, said Howard Paulfoy, president of Rockford Package Supply, Rockford, Mich. To make handling more convenient for individual members, warehouse clubs are taking what suppliers call the "one-handed approach" by prepackaging produce in smaller, consumer-friendly sizes.
"The clubs want their members to be able to walk in and grab the largest amount they can with one hand," explained Paulfoy. This marks a significant departure from the clubs' previous produce programs, which featured a bulk approach supplemented with prepackaged goods that largely emphasized the needs of group members.
For example, while sweet potatoes are generally packaged in 50-pound boxes, Rasor said International Paper has begun providing one supplier with a 10-pound box for club use.
"This size specifically targets the clubs," said Rasor, "because it contains a reasonable volume of product and provides the convenience that they're looking for."
Suppliers added that prepackaging in smaller sizes makes shopping easier for club members by speeding their trips and simplifying buying decisions. Also, some clubs sell bulk produce shoppers bag and weigh themselves.
"Instead of picking out 10 apples and putting them in a bag, club members just pick up a single bag," said Joe Nucci, director of marketing for Mann Packing, Salinas, Calif. "This makes it simpler for them to pick out items.
"The consumer doesn't have to figure out how much of each item they want," Nucci continued. "They just pick and go."
Unlike the larger pack sizes formerly carried by the wholesale clubs, smaller pack sizes are also popular with individual members because they minimize spoilage.
For instance, Nucci said clubs have abandoned 5-pound bags of lettuce for 3-pound bags that can be sold either singly or as double-packs.
"This approach allows the clubs to maintain volume," he said, "while also allowing the product to stay in a controlled atmosphere for much longer."
In addition to providing more convenient sizes, the clear wrap used for prepacks satisfies the members' need to see the produce they purchase.
"People have always wanted to see and handle their produce before they buy it," observed a club buyer who asked not to be named. "They just like to feel like they picked it out."
To maximize visibility, suppliers said clubs are demanding packaging that allows as much of the produce as possible to remain visible.
"The clubs are trying to achieve high visibility with nearly every produce item," said Paulfoy. "As a result, we use clear packages with small labels so that 95% of the product is exposed for the shopper's inspection."
Nucci explained that because a number of variables can affect the quality of produce, "consumers appreciate being able to see the product because it allows them to take something home with confidence."
With less room for labeling, improved graphics on club produce packages become all the more important, observers said.
"In the past year we've seen a move to brighter, clearer graphics that quickly communicate to club members what's inside," said Rasor.
"The clubs' produce packaging has never really emphasized merchandising," agreed Nucci, "but this is rapidly changing as they begin moving into the smaller sizes and target the individual members."
The clubs' emphasis on upgrading produce merchandising extends to the presentation of shipper displays.
"Lately, we've been asking for colorful boxes with attractive graphics," said the club buyer, "because they draw the members' attention to the produce section."
Rasor added that these improved graphics are often accompanied by higher grades of paperboard that further enhance the containers' appearance.
"Colorful graphics often require a better quality substrate," he said. "So in many cases we've gone from kraft container board to substrates such as International Paper's Kla White." Aside from upgraded graphics and materials, die-cut display cases have improved the clubs' produce sections by providing a neater, more consistent appearance.
"In the past, each stockperson would have their own style of opening cases," Nucci explained. "Unfortunately, some were better than others."
Packers said the clubs' emphasis on improving produce packaging can be traced partly to the grocery stores where individual members traditionally buy produce.
"Wholesale clubs don't have someone setting up displays like you see at grocery stores," said Paulfoy, "so the produce has to be attractive as soon as it comes out of the box, or in some cases, when it stays in the box."
Prepackaged produce also offers clubs the chance to lower overhead costs by reducing han-
See Clubs, Page 88
"Prepackaging saves the clubs because they don't need produce clerks to deal with individual pieces of produce," explained Nucci. "All they have to do is set up bags or uncap a case."
Paulfoy added that clubs were interested in reducing the handling required by produce, "so display cases are perfect because all the operator has to do is put down the skid, pull out a flap and they're ready to go."
Suppliers expect current produce packaging trends to continue.
"Prepackaging is part and parcel of their produce marketing plan," said Rasor. "And I imagine that it will continue this way."
"They have a formula that is really working well," said Nucci, "and packaging is going to continue to play a very big part in this process."