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Regardless of the product, consumers are naturally drawn to items that are both practical and look attractive. This is as true in food retailing as it is anywhere.Those in the industry agree that proper packaging is a primary influence on a shopper's decision to buy, and must have several attributes: safety, durability, convenience and the ability to stand out.Of the four, safety takes top priority

Regardless of the product, consumers are naturally drawn to items that are both practical and look attractive. This is as true in food retailing as it is anywhere.

Those in the industry agree that proper packaging is a primary influence on a shopper's decision to buy, and must have several attributes: safety, durability, convenience and the ability to stand out.

Of the four, safety takes top priority with both retailers and consumers. Packaging should protect and preserve the integrity of the food. It should also complement what it contains and make it easier to use.

However, first impressions certainly count. And to this end, the general consensus among those SN spoke with is that , as in fashion, black is the power color. The appearance of an ordinary styrofoam or plastic container is said to become extraordinary when dressed in basic black. Retailers called the look "stunning" and "elegant." More importantly, they reported positive customer response and increased sales following their transitions to black-bottomed packaging.

Marc Kane, director of meat and seafood at Andronico's Market, Albany, Calif., said the company has been using black styrofoam trays in its self-serve meat cases for some time. However, with the recent opening of the Andronico's in Danville, Calif., it decided to expand the look into the service meat area as well.

"We've had many compliments at the new store," he said. "And we like the look so much we've decided to take it companywide."

Kane pointed out that while the self-serve cases are using styrofoam, the service counters are using highly polished black plastic trays to display meat and poultry. He said the retailer spends the extra money for the display trays because they can be used over and over again, as opposed to the self-serve trays, which are taken home and discarded by the customers. Expansion of this practice to service departments companywide should be in effect within the next couple of months.

"Color works to enhance the product," said Dick Spezzano, president of Monrovia, Calif. based Spezzano Consulting Service Inc. "The right color can really make good attributes stand out."

According to Spezzano, many retailers have begun to realize what a powerful tool a simple colored tray can be. He was not surprised by Andronico's preference for black trays for its meats and agreed that a black background helps to present the meat very favorably.

"It's really a great look and we've gotten good feedback," Kane said. "The solid black background creates this sea of red with the beef or white with the pork. It's really very striking and brings the focus back to the product."

Other colors that Spezzano said have become popular with retailers are pink for meats and yellow for poultry.

Andronico's meat category has experienced profit growth approaching 5% compared with last year, said Kane. He added that, while the meat department is an everyday destination and the majority of sales there are not impulse, the department's new "elegant" look is turning a few unsuspecting heads.

"[The black trays] give the department an overpowering look compared to what it used to be," he said. "It definitely draws people in."

Black is also the power color in the bakeries of Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., now that Kurt Burmeister is bakery director for corporate stores.

"I use black-bottom, clear-top, [polyethylene terephthalate] plastic containers for all bakery," he said. "I've done it for about two years and the presentation is just beautiful."

Dealing with delicate baked goods throughout his professional career has made packaging a topic of great importance to Burmeister. He is constantly searching for better ways to package and present his products and said this is why he seeks out PET plastic.

"PET is a higher-grade plastic than what a lot of people use," he said. "It's thick and durable, it stacks nicer and it's not brittle, so it won't crack."

Burmeister is quick to acknowledge packaging's heavy influence on bakery customers.

"Ultimately, packaging will drive the first sale," he said, adding that even with quality products, "If it doesn't look good, if it isn't merchandised well, [the consumer] will never buy it in the first place."

Burmeister experienced this hands-on while working as bakery director for Glen's Markets, Gaylord, Mich. Recently acquired by Spartan, Glen's had been packaging its doughnut holes in bags with small windows, allowing customers only a peek at what was inside. He said the bags' lack of stability typically resulted in the doughnuts breaking apart, smearing the window and otherwise looking messy. He believed the poor packaging was hindering the sales of the product.

To correct this problem, Burmeister switched to rigid plastic containers and watched sales of the small treats skyrocket.

"The sales have been phenomenal," said Burmeister. "We've seen sales increases of about 20% on [the doughnut holes] and we were able to raise the price as well."

The doughnut holes were selling at $1.99 for two dozen when packaged in the bags. They now retail for $2.69 per two dozen.

Burmeister said the stiff walls of the plastic containers have not only kept the product from moving around and falling apart, but have helped control per-portion costs as well. The containers will hold only a certain number of doughnut holes, which are manufactured in a preset, standardized size. Previously, the flexibility of the bags sometimes allowed for more doughnuts to be inserted, so per-portion costs fluctuated.

While she agrees that packaging helps drive the first sale, Mona Doyle, president of the Philadelphia-based consulting firm The Consumer Network Inc., believes packaging can shape the repeat sale as well, pointing out that convenience is a key factor in consumer satisfaction. According to Doyle, packaging itself is moving beyond a mere commodity that contains product.

"Consumers' primary interface with a product is through its packaging," she said. "It's what makes an item easy to use or not. That's a very big piece of making life pleasant."

Doyle's consumer information comes from a new report -- being published by her company this month -- titled "Packaging at the Turning Point." The report investigates what consumers are looking for in packaging today.

Lynn Rosseth, director of market development and programs at the Foodservice & Packaging Institute, Arlington, Va., said that, often, retailers don't realize the effect that the proper package has on sales.

"Packaging is a very big part of the total package," she said. "The important thing is finding the right packaging for the right product."

In his new position, overseeing bakery operations for 44 Spartan-owned stores, Burmeister is bringing successful packaging ideas, which worked at Glen's, to the bakeries in other stores now under his management and seeing their profits climb. The revamping of the bakery program at Harrison, Mich.-based Ashcraft Markets is a shining example.

"We changed their program to the one we had at Glen's and saw a 24% increase," Burmeister said, adding that new packaging can breathe life into a tired-looking department.

He said Ashcraft had been using very generic-looking containers that really didn't work to enhance the products, one of the main duties of good packaging, in his opinion.

One item in particular that Burmeister said has experienced "astronomical growth" due to a change in packaging is their cream cakes. Since the stores have begun using the rose-dome containers that Burmeister brought in, Ashcraft's bakery has reported going from making the cakes a few times a week to making them every day in order to meet demand.

"It's a matter of four points," he said. "Presentation, packaging, merchandising and quality. If you can get all that together, you can sell the product."

Scott Beard, director of catering for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Mollie Stone's Markets, agreed, saying its fresh-meals packaging actually provides advantages for both retailer and consumer.

Meals are created for the chain's six stores in its commissary kitchen, located on the second level of the San Francisco store, and are packaged in dual-ovenable cardboard containers with a full-view, peel-back window. Printed in the top left corner of the window is the Mollie Stone's logo and in the bottom right corner is the phrase "Fresh From Our Kitchen."

"The packaging provides the customer with a full view of the dish and gives us the opportunity for advertising," said Beard, adding the packaging also provided great convenience as far as display. "They stack well because they are all the same shape, they present well because the customer can see the whole dish, and they hold up well because they are sealed, allowing for a seven-day shelf life."

"There is a food-safety issue when it comes to packaging [fresh-meals] foods," said the FPI's Rosseth. "The containers must be able to keep the hot foods hot and the cold foods cold. It's also very important that they won't leak or spill."

Mollie Stone's containers are able to withstand temperatures of up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, making them microwave and conventional oven-safe. Beard said its customers really enjoy this aspect and are especially fond of the full-view top.

"Food is a visual as well as a taste sensation," he said. "Even in a restaurant, acceptance relies heavily on presentation. If they can see the entire meal, they feel safe. Not like a TV dinner that could look like anything inside."

According to Beard, customers today want to know they are getting something that is new and fresh. They travel more, they know more, they expect more, he said, adding this does not change the fact that they also want it to be simple on their end.

"They don't want to go to a restaurant all the time, but they don't want to buy the ingredients and make it themselves either. Even if they are good cooks," he said. "The whole concept of HMR is ease. [Consumers] want to take five minutes to buy something and 15 minutes to cook it. These packages help make that possible."

Doyle said consumer ease and convenience are one of the most overlooked areas when retailers select packaging for their products.

"The ideal package is a themeless package," she said. "All it does is enhance the product."

Spezzano agreed and volunteered an example from the produce industry -- watermelon carry bags.

"Watermelons are typically so difficult to carry," he said. "These cloth bags resemble those used to carry fire wood and make the task a great deal easier for the customer."

He added that simple commodities like this can really simplify consumers' lives.

"Consumers, whether they realize it or not, are affected by packaging," said Rosseth. "Manufacturers know this and are working with supermarkets and other food people to create better products. The closer they continue to work together, the better the products will be."