It's no secret that consumers have turned to brown-bag lunches and meals prepared at home to help cope financially.
Indeed, countless food dollars have been saved by applying the strategy. Now consumers are proving themselves equally frugal when it comes to preserving their homemade creations.
In many instances, shoppers are bypassing value-add national brands of plastic food bags — promising to extend the life of produce or steam it to perfection in the microwave — for basic, value-priced private labels, retailers told SN.
Shoppers are also treating disposable/reusable plastic storage containers just as they would longer life counterparts: They're using them again and again.
Dollar sales of store-brand food storage bags were up 7.9% across food, drug and mass channels (including Wal-Mart) during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2009, vs. the prior year, according to the Nielsen Co., Schaumburg, Ill. Sales of national brands fell 5.4%.
The shift to Associated Food Stores' private-label Western Family food storage bags has been so dramatic that national-brand competitors have adopted new pricing and promotion strategies to better compete, said Steve Skinner, category manager for the Salt Lake City-based wholesale distributor.
Sales of Western Family bags are up 15% during the most recent 52-week period, while national brands, priced around 10% higher, are down by 2%.
“Most of the sales are shifting to private label,” he said.
Western Family's food storage and freezer bag offerings are basic. The retailer's store-brand supplier, Presto Products, Appleton, Wis., considered adding a microwaveable steam bag but squashed the idea after sales of Ziploc Brand Zip ‘n Steam Microwave Steam Cooking Bags and Glad Simply Cooking Microwave Steaming Bags declined, according to Skinner.
They were down by 50% at AFS last summer, he said.
In an effort to regain share, and account for a drop in commodity prices, Glad reduced its price by 35%, according to Skinner.
“They could see the trend that consumers weren't repurchasing that item,” he said of the line that he eventually discontinued.
In the fall, another national brand, Ziploc, began promoting its bags more heavily rather than reduce price.
The marketer of Ziploc Double Zipper freezer bags and Double Zipper sandwich bags with Fresh Shield provided an additional 5% promotional allowance to all of its storage and freezer bags, said Skinner.
“It was a four-month promotion and I'd never seen that,” he said of the timeframe.
Sales of Ziploc Zip ‘n Steam Microwave Steam Cooking Bags are down 24%, vs. the prior year at AFS.
The practice of offering promotions rather than permanently reducing price subsequent to commodity cost declines was common in 2009, according to Information Resources Inc.'s latest Times & Trends report. It found that 88% of grocery categories experienced increased promotional activity last year.
But rather than boost promotions on its petroleum-based plastic bags and food storage containers once the price of fuel declined, AFS passed several price reductions on to shoppers.
“The three price declines we saw from Presto, we passed 100% on to our consumers,” Skinner said.
Store-brand storage solutions are also thriving at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., where sales of reusable/disposable storage containers are up 5% over the previous year, noted Jan Winn, director of HBC and general merchandise at Big Y.
Disposable containers from Big Y, Glad and Ziploc sell two-thirds better than long-life storage containers like Reynolds Casuals with a steam release vent and Lock and Lock storage containers with panels that flip down to lock on all four sides, said Winn.
Promoted at two for $4 — compared with Ziploc and Glad containers promoted two for $5 — the Big Y containers sell best.
“The price is more reasonable and the quality is good or better,” said Winn.
So good in fact, that they might be cannibalizing sales of plastic storage bags at the chain, said grocery manager Chris Atter who overseas the category at Big Y. Consumers are also turning to wraps.
Items garnering the most attention are Big Y Aluminum Foil, Big Y Reclosable Freezer Bags and Big Y Reclosable Sandwich Bags, Atter said.
Price is driving purchasing decisions.
“A stronger merchandising effort has been put forth on wraps,” noted Atter.
The retailer has also highlighted the health and convenience benefits of items like Ziploc's microwave steam bags. It's featured them on endcaps along with a recipe for Greek Chicken and mashed potatoes that can be prepared in the microwave, Big Y's registered dietitian Carrie Taylor told SN.
“Steaming in the microwave tends to be a quick cook so you maintain more water soluble vitamins vs. boiling, which leaches out these vitamins,” she said.
Consumers are also using bags to keep fresh 100-calorie packs they've portioned themselves after buying their favorite snacks in bulk.
“Those 100-calorie packs are a great idea, but they cost a lot of money,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst at Mintel, Chicago.
Sales of the snack packs are poor in the Salt Lake City area, which is home to large families, noted Skinner.
Shoppers there are adopting the do-it-yourself approach.
“People are absolutely buying snacks in bulk and using plastic bags to portion them out,” he said.
Retailers interested in promoting sales should cross-merchandise club-size packs alongside appropriate bags.
Big Y sells Hefty Fresh Extend Bags, designed specifically for keeping unwashed and uncut fruits and vegetables fresh, in shippers in the produce department.
“These companies are providing a solution that will allow you to store in bulk without allowing these things to go bad before you use them,” Mogelonsky said.
Retailers could also cross-promote plastic freezer bags with multi-packs of frozen items.
“You're going to end up with 14 chicken legs but you're not going to eat 14 chicken legs at once,” noted Mogelonsky.
Environmental concerns are also informing decisions.
There are bags for consumers who've cut out plastic shopping bags and may have considered doing the same with food bags.
Last year, Ziploc introduced Evolve sandwich and storage bags made from a resin using 25% less plastic compared with regular Ziploc sandwich and storage bags. They are manufactured using wind power and packaged in a 100% recycled box.
Although they're gaining momentum at Big Y, sales of green options make up a small portion of plastic storage bags sold there, noted Atter.
Sales of the bags are faring better than expected at AFS, Skinner said.
Another eco-friendly option is the Ecozip, a patent-pending multi-compartment food bag that can hold two items like a sandwich and chips. The seal that divides the compartments can be unzipped to convert it to a single-compartment bag.
When used with two food items, it cuts down on the number of bags required. Each Ecozip bag is produced with 20% less plastic, according to Ecozip.
Straub's Market category manager Roger McElroy spotted Ecozip at a recent show. He hopes to begin sourcing it through distributor Kehe Foods. A 30-count box would retail for $3.59 at Straub's.
“Conservation is on a lot of people's minds right now,” he told SN. “It's kind of neat that you can unzip the middle and use it as one big bag, or use it as two separate bags.”
A new addition at AFS is the Ziploc Fresh Shield Easy Zipper expandable bottom storage and freezer bags. The bags' pleated bottom expands into a flat base, helping them stand on their own so they are easier to fill and store.
“I definitely think they'll be successful,” Skinner said. “You get a couple of less bags, but the convenience of having the bags stand up while you're trying to fill them.”