Today's food storage bags and plastic containers are pricier than their predecessors, but shoppers don't seem to mind. Environmental concerns haven't slowed sales significantly either, retailers told SN.
The newest bags to enter the market leverage steamable technologies, easy-zip tabs, multiple layers to prevent freezer burn, and vacuum-seal capabilities.
Containers have also undergone upgrades. Some come with airtight twist caps. Others have interlocking lids that help consumers clean up cabinet clutter.
Such innovations are driving sales in the category, Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager for Highland Park Markets' South Windsor, Conn., store, told SN.
At Highland Park, quart-size Ziploc bags with Easy Zipper tabs have been one of the top-selling items for several years. Recently, microwavable steam bags have begun to capture shoppers' attention as well.
“The Zip 'n Steam bags came out a while ago and have fared well so far,” said Cummiskey. “I expect sales to pick up even more as we move toward the summer. That's when we start to carry locally grown vegetables, so it makes sense that shoppers will want bags specifically made for steaming veggies.”
Shoppers there have also shown an increased interest in environmental issues, a movement that has resulted in an uptick in reusable container sales, he added.
Ziploc Snap 'n Seal and Ziploc Twist 'n Loc containers are popular. So are the new Gladware containers with interlocking lids.
Compared to plastic storage bags, containers that can be reused are more expensive, but consumers are willing to make the investment because they will be used again and again, said Cummiskey.
At supermarkets and big-box stores, for instance, some Ziploc and Glad food storage bags and sandwich bags retail for as little as $1.99, depending on the design and per-box bag count. In comparison, an eight-pack of Gladware deep-dish containers with lids retails for more than $6.00, and one of Ziploc's smallest container products, a five-pack of 14 fl. oz. bowls with lids, retails for $5.29 or more.
Despite the price difference, select container sales were up during the 52 weeks ending Jan. 27, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Dollar sales of Rubbermaid Take Alongs increased 7.4% to $17.9 million, and Ziploc Twist 'n Loc sales grew 0.8% to $10.6 million.
Total sales of food storage bags were up 0.4% to $690.7 million during the same time period, but unit sales decreased 1.4% to 295.2 million units.
Don Stuart, managing director, Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., attributes the difference in dollars and units to shoppers buying higher-priced products. “They're buying the more expensive products, but fewer overall,” he said.
A few bags showed both sales and unit growth. Among them are Ziploc sandwich/freezer/storage bags, which grew 6.2% to $234.2 million, with unit shares up 5.7%. Presto brand sandwich/freezer/storage bags were also up 0.3% to $332,898, with unit shares increasing 0.3%.
THE ENVIRONMENT ANGLE
Widespread concern for the environment is beginning to have an impact on the category, said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill.
“There is a gradual evolution toward more environmentally sensible approaches that has been occurring over the past 15 to 20 years throughout the store,” he said, adding that food storage is one category where convenience still outweighs environmental concerns in most people's minds.
That said, recent Wisner Marketing Group research suggests that approximately 40% of shoppers are willing to allow environmental considerations to affect their purchase decisions.
Wisner predicts that more consumers will begin following the mantra of “reduce-reuse-recycle” in coming years, and thus reusable containers could eventually outsell throwaway plastic bags.
Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn., agrees. He believes retailers that highlight the better-for-the-earth option of certain plastic products will experience a rise in profits.
“The environment is a very important consideration that needs to be addressed in this category,” he said. “Retailers should promote the environmental benefits of using reusable containers instead of single-use plastic bags. If they do this, consumers will respond to their cues.”
Shoppers aren't likely to stop buying food storage products altogether because of the environment, Taft said. The convenience is too great. But knowing that they have a greener option makes them feel better about their purchase, and it results in a higher ring for the retailer.
“Consumers like the versatility and flexibility that food bags allow,” said David Kellis, spokesman for Glad Products Co., a subsidiary of Clorox Co., Oakland, Calif. “Food bags make it easy to store food and keep it fresh and handy at home and on the go. They also help with portion control.”
During 2007, Kellis saw the greatest growth in freezer and sandwich bag sales. Much of the increase, he suspects, is due to innovations like vacuum sealers, microwave steaming bags and slider bags in various sizes made by companies like Glad, Reynolds, Ziploc and Hefty.
Paul Johnson, store manager at Dahl's Food Markets' Ankeny, Iowa, store, reported similar results. All sizes of Ziploc bags with Easy Zipper tabs sell well there. Ziploc Double Guard freezer bags are also popular.
What doesn't invoke repeat purchases at Dahl's is a low-quality, low-cost bag or container, he said.
“People sometimes buy the cheaper products that don't have the [Easy Zipper] component or other functional features, but they get what they pay for and don't often buy them again,” said Johnson. “I've found that most people will pay more for a higher-quality bag or container, even when the economy is struggling.”
Although economic woes usually prompt consumers to purchase food storage items so they can brown-bag lunches and store leftovers from dinners at home, industry observers note that they haven't had much of an impact on the category thus far.
According to Dahl's Johnson, any sales growth is minor at best, and certainly not enough to warrant the added merchandising or promotional attention, he said.
Wisner notes, however, that this could soon change. Historically, he said, there has been an increase in consumers brown-bagging their lunches when the economy is soft and consumers look for easy ways to reduce personal expenses.
Many also choose to eat at home rather than at restaurants. As a result, they use more sandwich bags, freezer bags and other food storage containers, he said.
“Equally important, there is often a feel-good component during recessions that makes frugality more ‘in’ socially,” said Wisner. “Retailers could lift sales a bit if they took this to heart and took action with special promotions, cross-merchandising and other incentives.”
ALL AROUND THE STORE
Cannondale's Stuart suggests cross-merchandising with a wide variety of items throughout the store. Bread, chips, cookies and other snacks easily fit into food bags, and it makes sense to shoppers to have bags and portable containers handy.
“Retailers haven't done as good of a job as they could with cross-promotion opportunities in this category,” Stuart told SN. “This is a year-round business that should be merchandised day in and day out to achieve maximum potential.”
While Findlay, Ohio-based Fresh Encounter isn't planning major promotions anytime soon, Eric Anderson, its newly appointed co-president, has recognized the opportunity to play with price points.
“There is a lot of price elasticity in this category,” he said. “Most customers don't know how much they paid for their last box of Ziploc bags. They might know that the containers cost a little more than bags, but they probably couldn't say how much more.”
Consequently, retailers have leeway to experiment with price without turning off shoppers, thus improving margins, he said.
Shoppers at Fresh Encounter buy mostly easy-zip bags and all types of containers for on-the-go food storage. Double-ply products lead the freezer bag category there.
The chain is preparing to launch the new Reynolds Handi-Vac Vacuum Sealing System this month, a product that Anderson expects to do well.
The Handi-Vac is a small, handheld, battery-operated vacuum unit that removes the air from Handi-Vac bags that have built-in vacuum valves. The vacuum unit is priced at $9.99, with boxes of quart- and gallon-sized bags carrying a suggested retail price of $3.29.
“With more than 76% of women freezing food three or more times per month, Reynolds Handi-Vac Vacuum Sealing System is a must-have tool for any kitchen,” said Betty Morton, manager, the Reynolds Kitchens. “Home cooks spend enough time preparing meals every day; they need a freezer storage solution that's effective, convenient and easy to use.”
The Handi-Vac has impressed Johnson.
“Shoppers really like them because they are great for preventing freezer burn and not as expensive as other vacuum systems on the market,” he said.
Orchard Food, a two-store supermarket in western Michigan, has access to the Handi-Vac through its warehouse, but Tim McGovern, grocery manager for the retailer's Fruitport store, hasn't brought them in yet. He plans to wait and see how well they perform at other outlets before committing them to his store.
“I brought in steaming bags a while ago, but they haven't done much here, and I haven't had shoppers asking about food storage bags or containers much, so I'm focusing on the basics for now,” said McGovern.
With Ziploc's steaming bags showing lackluster results, he doesn't expect Glad's new Simply Cooking steaming bags to do any better. The bags will be rolled out this summer in 10-count packs, with each bag capable of steaming three to four servings of vegetables at a time.