(May 7) CHICAGO — Back in black.

IFCO Systems North America Inc., Bartow, Fla., is phasing out its trademark green returnable plastic containers with a lighter, sturdier generation of RPCs that feature an easy latching system.

Unveiled at the Food Marketing Institute show May 6 in Chicago, the black container reflects retailer preferences for displaying produce, IFCO president Dave Russell said. While shippers don’t place a high priority on color, retailers surveyed by IFCO preferred black containers because they provide a better background for produce, and many retailers say display case color schemes work with black.

“For retailers, color is more important,” Russell said.

The containers will conform to the industry’s footprint of 60 centimeters by 40 centimeters, and the first size introduced is 23 centimeters deep. This container, which holds 40-50 pounds of citrus, potatoes, onions and other produce, will start circulating in June. Seven other sizes will be phased in within three to five years. As with the current IFCO RPCs, they are compatible with most other containers offered by other companies.

Peter LeBlond, vice president of national accounts for IFCO, said the new RPC signals the fifth generation of the original container that came out in 1997, but this is the most significant change for the company. IFCO’s German engineering team designed the container based on feedback from grower-shippers and retailers. IFCO is contracting with a handful of U.S. manufacturers to make the containers.

While the company can’t differentiate itself from competitors by color anymore, Russell said service will be the key distinction. IFCO Systems has more than 150 facilities worldwide and operates round-trip container systems with a large pool of containers to route to and from customers. In January, the company added sanitation facilities in San Antonio and London, Ky., to clean the containers before recirculating. IFCO also has sanitation facilities in Fresno, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C.

Ron McCormick, produce director for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., said his company’s retail color scheme worked with both black and green containers, but the move by IFCO showed a readiness to follow retailer preferences. The uniformity with RPC colors might lessen the reluctance some retailers have with switching to an RPC program, he said.
“I think it’s a good thing for the industry, because one of the obstacles (to retailer acceptance) is that the colors will change,” McCormick said.

This spring, IFCO also launched InXchange, a pallet return and exchange system that works like a bank account. Companies can purchase pallets locally and turn in pallets across the U.S. and receive credit for them. Online accounting shows customers how many pallets they have in their account, and monthly statements track their pallet activity. The pallets can be returned at 40 IFCO facilities, as well as the 80-90 affiliated pallet facilities that have an agreement with IFCO, Russell said.