Consumers Rate Packaging

“No Mess” and “Readiness” are two things that today’s shoppers need and expect when shopping for produce. Once upon a time, the big choice in fresh produce was between packaged and bulk.

Pre-organic produce shoppers believed supermarkets sold packaged apples, potatoes and onions with the rotten ones on the bottom and the fresh ones on top. Publix Supermarkets in Florida was the only supermarket chain selling packaged produce that shoppers believed was uniformly perfect. Competitors featuring bulk produce advertised shoppers could choose their own fruits and vegetables from bulk displays and made building the displays into an art form that sometimes reached perilous heights.

The bulk-versus-packaged war is long over, and packaging has gained ground. Today’s shoppers worry about prices, E. coli and pesticide residue, but they don’t worry about rotten apples. In fact, everyone in the supply chain deserves kudos for the trust they have earned for the quality of what today’s shoppers routinely find in their packages.

The strongest example of this produce victory is the difference in perception of produce and meat packages. When it comes to buying fresh meat in a package, most shoppers skeptically expect it to be packaged “bad side down,” meaning they expect to find more fat and bone when they open the package and turn it over. Produce shoppers are much less likely to expect the bottom layers of strawberries to be moldy, or apples placed on the bottom to be rotten. It’s not totally a coincidence that meat and produce have changed places in the supermarket hierarchy, with produce, rather than meat, now being a primary factor in store choice and profit generation.

Some of the turnaround is attributed to produce packaging innovations that have made a difference in shoppers’ lives, and packaged salads are first among them. Millions of consumers regularly serve fresh salad at home with no more work than the flick of a pair of scissors. However, now that shoppers have taken them into their refrigerators, hearts, and meals on a regular basis, they grumble and gripe because the packages are hard to open and harder to reclose.

In a recent Consumer Network survey called Packaging Report Card 2009, shoppers were asked to rate the packaging in 60 food and beverage product categories. Only half of the respondents gave good marks to “Salad, bagged — refrigerated.”

In sharp contrast, more than 80 percent gave good marks to another refrigerated product, “Milk in cartons — screw cap.” It’s worth noting that shoppers hated the gable-topped cartons before the screw caps were inserted and that the improved closures were pioneered by marketers of refrigerated juice, such as Tropicana, and not by any of the more traditional dairy companies.

Back to salad bags: There are at least seven reasons they received such low scores on our report card.

1. They make a mess. In the process of being opened, they have a tendency to spill out on the counter or table, which is precisely what shoppers are trying to avoid by buying them.

2. They don’t reclose, and today’s shoppers want and expect to be able to reseal perishable produce packages.

3. Their freshness dates are less than easy to read and considered by many shoppers to be of primary importance.

4. They go bad very quickly when closed with a clip.

5. Other “less important” produce items, such as berries, now have terrific packages. “So why don’t salads have good packages, too?”

6. They are not portable. Convenience stores are doing a great job of selling pre-cut vegetables and salads in on-the-go packages that fit most cars’ cup holders. The berry packages are fabulous — easy to open and store.”

7. There’s too much plastic in the produce department. “How can fresh produce be better for the planet with everything being wrapped in plastic?” Some packages for organic greens do have strong, eco-friendly selling points: “The Earth-Best organic greens come in a plastic box made from recycled bottles, which makes me feel great about buying it.”

The produce industry has come a long way to making eating and/or cooking with fresh produce as easy as possible. It is easy and delicious to have a fabulous soup meal with 30-second prep time by combining a package of fresh cut carrots, onions and celery with a can or carton of soup. Shoppers expect more packaging that makes fresh produce easier to use. No mess and readiness should be the guideposts for package and business development.