Clamshells make inroads but lower cost bags dominate

05/06/2011 02:05:00 PM
Tom Karst

YAKIMA, Wash. — The majority of the Northwest cherry crop will once again be marketed in 2-pound catch weight zipper bags, although clamshell packs represent an important need for some buyers.

Bulk display of cherries are rare at conventional retailers, with bags the No. 1 option, but clamshells are preferred for rainiers, organic cherries and premium dark sweet cherries. Club stores have ramped up their demand for clamshell packs in recent years, sources said.

“You see very little bulk displays anymore because retailers don’t want to have cherries on the floor,” said Michael Nickoloff, salesman for Borton & Sons Inc., Yakima.

The extra time and labor required to pack clamshells are significant, observers said.

“The industry doesn’t have the ability to run all clamshells,” said James Michael, promotions director for the Yakima-based Northwest Cherry Growers.

The expense of clamshells is one reason buyers prefer to stay with the 2-pound bag, marketers said.

“I think traditional retail stores will stay in bags,” said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee.

Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Yakima-based Rainier Fruit Co., said bags are appealing to consumers in one respect because they are marketed with cherries priced by the pound. In contrast, the fixed-weight clamshells are priced by the unit and would typically appear more expensive.

“It gives the consumers a different impression,” she said.

One reality is that shippers don’t have the time to pack their entire crop in clamshells.

“Cherries are such a quick season, and you are running double shifts for seven days a week,” Michael said.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers Inc., said the firm packs about 20% of its cherries in clamshells.

That’s up from about five years ago, when perhaps 7% of the crop was marketed in clamshells.

“It’s growing fast,” Pepperl said. Pepperl speculated that clamshell packs could eventually comprise as much as 50% of Northwest cherry shipments.

The clamshell is display-ready and allows for easier handling by the retailer, Pepperl said. However, he said clamshell packs struggle at times to maintain ideal humidity levels.

Bob Mast, vice president of marketing for Wenatchee-based Columbia Marketing International Inc., said clamshells are often favored to highlight large-sized cherries for conventional retailers, while club stores may feature a 3-pound or 4-pound clamshell to their customers.

He said CMI has developed a clamshell pack for 8-row cherries this year to serve retailers who want a premium look for their displays.

“Clamshells have come up in the last five years, really driven by the club stores,” he said. Mast estimated clamshell may account for close to 35% of CMI’s volume.

Meanwhile, shippers said a “flow wrap” pack is being considered by retailers as an alternative to clamshells. However, some buyers fear the seal wrap over a container won’t leave them the option of removing a bad cherry, Mast said. Stems of cherries can also spoil the seal of a flow-wrap container.

“We haven’t seen an option out there that works better than bags or clamshells,” Mast said.

Steve Lutz, executive vice president of Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., said he expects the popularity of clamshell packs to increase despite the cost factor.

“The clamshell protects the produce better, and there is a segment of consumers much more willing to buy cherries in a clamshell,” he said.

However, higher unit prices for clamshell containers hold some customers back.

“Some retailers want clams but don’t want to pay for it,” said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan.

He said one supermarket that used clamshells last year reverted back to the zipper bag this year due to price concerns.

Riggan said one chain store asked Chelan Fresh to consider a 12-ounce clamshell pack for rainiers to lower the price point.

Chris Falk, vice president of Yakima-based Yakima Fruit & Produce Co., said retailers ask for quotes on clamshells but tend to back off when they see the cost.



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