Produce Packaging Market Benefits From Retail Grocery Boom of Pandemic Era — Packaging Future May be Affected By Other Supply Chain Disruptors

Produce Packaging Market Benefits From Retail Grocery Boom of Pandemic Era

By Peter Kusnic, Content Writer and Analyst

August 2021 – The sharp, sudden shift in consumer behavior driven by the COVID-19 pandemic increased sales of packaging in the fresh produce aisle, according to the Freedonia Group. Stay-at-home orders and nonessential business closures led more consumers to shift their food-buying dollars away from foodservice (e.g., restaurants, cafeterias) and to retail grocers. This trend is expected to remain elevated at least for a time as home cooking — and the corresponding rise in retail grocery shopping — is a habit that many are expected to continue at an elevated level for the near term at least.

In some cases, there were increased use of packaging for produce items as well. Shopping and food consumption trends created opportunities for an increase in sales of packaged produce over loose produce.

• Seeking convenient options to incorporate whole fruits and vegetables into their diets, consumers purchased more semi-prepared, packaged fresh produce (e.g., pre-washed salad mixes, pre-cut vegetables, and sliced fruit) that are sold in pouches, on trays, and in cups.

• Prepackaged produce options also appealed to consumers looking to shorten grocery store trip times or to avoid bulk bins, which some perceived to be less sanitary than packaged items.

• Prepackaged fruits and vegetables further benefited from the rise in online grocery orders and curbside pickup, as they typically feature relatively consistent packaging sizes that are easier to convey in an online order, and they have labels with set prices so they don’t need to be weighed at checkout.

Even as consumers resume more of their pre-pandemic routines, demand for produce packaging will continue to rise in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic aided by shifts in usage, along with value-added packaging innovations and rising raw material costs. A recent Freedonia Group analysis projects produce packaging sales to grow 3.7% annually to $6.7 billion in 2024.

Clamshells & Plastic Containers Boosted by Surging Demand for Ready-to-Eat Produce

Clamshells and plastic containers saw strong growth in 2020, in large part due to surging consumer demand for ready-to-eat (RTE) fruits and vegetables, the leading application for plastic containers in the produce segment.

Through 2024, sales of plastic containers are expected to outpace those of all other commonly used types of produce packaging, as clamshells and other plastic containers continue to supplant commodity bags and pillow pouches due to their good protective and display properties, especially with salads, fresh-cuts and other RTE foods.

Boosting market value, produce brands are also increasingly packaging upscale salad offerings in more attractive (and higher value) clamshells and two-piece plastic containers. Unit sales of tubs, cups, and bowls, which are already widely employed with fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, will benefit from their increasing use for packaging salads with dressings or other separate components.

Retail-Ready Packaging Makes Headway into Upscale Grocers

Within the corrugated boxes market, retail-ready types are forecast to see strong gains, supported by further penetration in retail stores, as well as by anticipated growth in warehouse clubs and discount stores (e.g., Costco, ALDI), which predominantly display products in this type of packaging:

• Corrugated boxes account for the majority of retail-ready produce packaging demand because they are well established, and retailers accept them as efficient, one-way shipping solutions.

• Despite strong competition from RPCs, corrugated boxes will benefit from their low cost and ability to be printed with high-quality graphics.

• Additionally, growth in demand for RPCs will be somewhat restrained by the large pool of RPCs already in use.

Retail-ready packaging has been common at discount retailers, but has made more headway into upscale retailers looking to reduce time spent restocking displays. Challenges in finding enough employees, particularly as the economy emerges in 2021, will make labor saving measures even more important. The use of retail-ready packaging will be aided by the increasing development of dark stores or e-commerce fulfillment areas where consumers do not go but are designed for function so that employees can quickly fill online orders.


Sustainability remains a key issue affecting demand for packaging in virtually all industries. It is particularly important in the fresh produce market, where the most intensive consumers — those who eat plant-based or plant-forward diets — tend to be some of the most environmentally aware consumers.

Therefore, many retailers are looking for ways to limit the use of single use plastics. Leading solutions include providing bulk offerings in corrugated boxes and encouraging consumers to bring reusable bags or containers, rather than providing plastic produce bags. Opportunities for produce packaging suppliers exist in options that are recyclable, reusable, and compostable or biodegradable.             pb

The Freedonia Group, a division of, is the premier international industrial research company, providing clients with product analyses, market forecasts, industry trends, and market share information.

Packaging Future May be Affected By Other Supply Chain Disruptors

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece titled “McDonald’s Pushes Diners to Use Trays as Food Bags Run Tight”:

McDonald’s Corp. is facing tight supplies of some of its paper to-go bags, the latest supply challenge affecting U.S. restaurants. The chain recently told restaurant owners that they needed to limit orders of bags from suppliers as usage is running ahead of already high numbers last year, McDonald’s said in an internal message.

Many customers are asking for their Big Macs, McNuggets and fries in bags even when they dine inside, driving the tightness, the chain said in the message. Workers who have spent months packing all orders to go during the pandemic aren’t used to serving meals on trays, contributing to the strain, the company said.

“Many new crew members have never had to deal with trays before,” the company said in the late-July message. The “transition to using trays has been slower, more difficult because we haven’t done it in so long.”

The truth is that the data included in Freedonia’a report most likely dramatically understates the growth of packaging for fresh produce in the past year. After all, no supermarket just throws fresh produce in the big box or bag for delivery with dozens of non-produce items. Every single produce item, ordered to be delivered during the pandemic, is put in some bag or container before being placed in a bigger bag or box for delivery to the consumer.

Indeed, one would suspect, if home delivery were to become the predominant way of buying fresh produce, almost all of it would be pre-packed. After all, the whole reason for selling bulk produce revolves around two things: First, creating that beautiful farm-stand atmosphere, rather than making the department look industrial. Second, to give consumers the chance to select what they are looking for, what they think best — in terms of ripeness, size, etc. All of this is moot if one is buying via computer.

Sure, some will object to the plastic and the waste such packaging generates, but if one is buying online for product to be delivered or ready for pickup, there really is no alternative.

Indeed, one suspects, even as people return to shopping in-store, there is likely to be a residual concern that bulk produce may not be sanitary. So it would not be surprising if one of the continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a bias toward buying more packaged produce.

The world is a challenging place right now. Another Wall Street Journal piece, titled “Supply-Chain Woes Come to School Cafeterias,” detailed the extent of the problem:

Schools are struggling to secure food for student breakfasts and lunches ahead of classrooms’ planned reopening in the fall.

Some cafeterias are cutting menu choices as food suppliers face labor shortages and transportation challenges that are adding costs and limiting supplies. Food distributors and school officials say they expect to run low on everything from canned fruit to lunch trays, and some worry that the lack of options will deter students from getting meals at school.

Some companies are scrambling to be able to meet orders:

Manufacturers are trying to meet demand. National Food Group Inc., a maker of snacks for schools, is reducing its flavors of Zee Zees applesauce by nearly half to cut the number of ingredients the company needs to buy, President Sean Zecman said. The Michigan- and California-based company is stockpiling fruits like pears while it can before they become tougher to secure.

Some distributors are looking at the whole situation and redirecting their resources:

Some distributors are downsizing their education business, leaving schools to find new avenues for food. US Foods Holding Corp. recently notified some districts in Florida, Kansas and other states that it wouldn’t be serving meal programs for the coming school year.

This has been a very difficult pandemic period, and other factors have played into the difficulties. There were, for example, 18,000 shipping containers on the “Ever Given” ship that blocked the Suez Canal and another 64,887 containers that were on other ships blocked behind the “Ever Given.” We may never know how much of this cargo was perishable, but it was not insignificant.

The fresh produce industry got lucky, as this ship was going from China to Europe, which isn’t a major fresh produce route. If, however, it had been an incident on a ship from South Africa or Chile in the midst of winter heading to Europe or North America, it could have been an industry catastrophe.

But there are shortages of everything — plastics and packaging to be sure, but also wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, truckers and shipping capacity. Hopefully, these are all just temporary disruptions as a vaccinated world heads for normalcy.       pb