There's a lot in the package these days, and it's not just the product.
Retail deli and bakery executives are fine-tuning their packaging to exploit its potential as a marketing tool as well as an effective container.
Merchandisers across the country said they are experimenting with a multitude of options in package design. And they may have a multitude of objectives in mind, such as cutting costs, accommodating new labels or improving functionality.
They are commonly realizing, too, that the package can go a long way toward communicating a marketing message and image. All these factors are keeping packages on the cutting edge of change.
"The industry is continually changing to try and meet our needs. Everybody's coming out with a new twist," said Charlie Barnard, director of deli, bakery and food service at Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis. "With packaging, you don't just lock in and stay one way. We are continuously looking at our packaging."
Aesthetics are a factor, but not necessarily a dominant one. Clear plastic domes over black trays, for example, seem to be one of the most popular choices right now among operators contacted by SN. But they can be expensive, and some retailers said they are searching for more cost-effective containers to deliver what they need.
On the practical side, containers must be leakproof, tamper-evident, stackable, microwavable or "dual-ovenable," and ecologically sound, retailers said.
The choice of materials includes plastic or aluminum containers, paperboard boxes or foil bags. And merchandisers have a choice of sizes and shapes: compartmentalized plates, family packs or single-serve dishes.
The options are all figured into a strategy of mating their deli and bakery packaging to a list of increasingly sophisticated needs.
Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla., is in the process of completely resetting its refrigerated self-serve cases, and the packaging strategy is being revamped as well.
In addition, in August Kash n' Karry will roll out a new nutritional labeling program and a "very aggressive marketing program," said Meredyth Williams, deli buyer.
"We're going to expand [self-service] beyond salads to include prepared foods, sandwiches and a chicken program," said Williams.
The chain is looking at a wide variety of packaging shapes and materials for all self-serve items, she said. A line that she thinks would do particularly well is "meals to go" because of the demographics of western Florida -- households comprising one or two middle-aged people. Those same demographics, however, don't bode well for larger packs, she said.
"I'm not so sure that value packs are the way for me to go. Single-serve meals or meals for two would probably be very attractive," Williams said. "We're looking at a compartmentalized dinner plate environment with a little salad, a dinner roll and a couple pieces of chicken."
Although Williams said her chain is still in the early planning stages, she knows what's important to her. Leakproof stackable containers are necessary for building a visually pleasing display, for instance.
And because Kash n' Karry projects an environmentally conscious image to its shoppers, environmentally friendly packaging is important as well.
Williams added that she desires a tamper-evident seal if a packaged food-service product is coming to her store from an outside manufacturer. At the same time, Williams said she would probably not use one if the food is made and packaged in the store, because such a seal may give customers the impression that the product was not freshly made on the premises.
Barnard of Marsh said he has been experimenting with a lot of different packages for about a year now in the deli department.
Three Marsh units are testing new labels. "We're trying a band around products to make them tamperproof. They have the UPC code on it, then the ingredients, cooking instructions and nutritional information," he said.
This becomes difficult, he said, when the label becomes too large and covers up the product -- something retailers should avoid at all costs.
Preferring not to settle with one type of packaging, Marsh uses three or four different suppliers. Packaging should be decided upon not just by its cost but by the way it holds a product, Barnard explained, adding that, "in most of our situations, the [price] difference is very minor."
He has gone back to aluminum containers with a clear lid. After experimenting with all-plastic ones, he found that some items taste better if they have been heated in a traditional oven instead of a microwave.
"We're fixing quiche from scratch and we're using [the aluminum] because you get a better bake on the crust," he noted.
Barnard has also experimented with dome-topped black plastic trays, but decided to stop that trial run because, he contends, the black presentation does not offer good eye appeal.
"We're going to lighter colors with clear tops. We try to give it more of a homey look. The food seems to have a warmer appearance," he said.
All Marsh containers -- whether for the bakery, deli or food-service items -- have identical company logos, to foster continuity.
However, in terms of innovation and change, Barnard has been concentrating on prepared foods. Packaging choices for the bakery department were firmly established about two years ago, he said.
D'Agostino Supermarkets is also targeting the deli department for packaging refinements, said Jesse Kirsch, director of deli-bakery operations at the Larchmont, N.Y.-based chain.
One goal is enhanced product presentation. D'Agostino will soon be sending its chickens out the door in domed plastic containers, "where you can see the product," instead of in foil bags, he said.
Although the new packages are more expensive, they will probably have greater customer appeal. Kirsch is betting that the higher priced containers will pay off when sales increase.
To give its baked goods a more upscale look, Buehler Foods, Jasper, Ind., began last month to use bakeable angel food cake pans with snap-on lids, said Flo Hunter, deli-bakery director. "It has definitely helped our bakery sales. It's a beautiful presentation," she noted.
Buehler's quest to improve the appearance of its prepared foods and baked goods began as far back as last July. The company started altering its merchandising strategy on bakery items and prepared foods when it realized that foods sell better if they appear fresh, appetizing and tasty.
For pizzas, the company now uses a 12-inch, clear-lidded, black-based "showcase" container instead of shrink-wrap. It sells sandwiches, mini chef salads, and individual pie and cake slices in clear plastic containers with hinged lids.
"You get presentation, and the product's going to be in a lot better condition when it gets home to the consumer," she said of the plastic containers.
Buehler places rotisserie chickens on oval, dual-ovenable showcase platters. "The consumers like it and the appearance is so good compared to foil-lined bags," Hunter said.
Some cold salads -- such as potato, macaroni and coleslaw -- come with a manufacturers' safety seal, but the foods that are made in-store are not tamper-evident yet, Hunter said. The company is looking into it. For store-made salads, Hunter went to a sturdier plastic container that is microwavable.
Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., is considering an insulated bag "that keeps the food warm longer and preserves the moisture of the product," said Roland Asselin, deli sales manager. "The current bags suck the moisture from the product, and we are working on packaging to preserve that process," he said.
Currently, Big Y offers either insulated bags or plastic containers, depending on the type of food the shopper is buying. All are leakproof and microwavable. "The containers are stackable. They are shaped so they can be easily stacked in shopping bags," he added.
Over the last year, the company has been selling larger portions, typically in plastic containers with extra compartments for side dishes.
One retailer based in the South is using a heat-sealed container with a band around it carrying cooking instructions, nutrition and ingredient information.
Because the chain places an emphasis on its food courts, much of the prepared foods are consumed on the premises. Whatever products are not eaten in-store are placed in paperboard or plastic clamshell containers, the chain's deli buyer said.