Single-portion packages, custom-designed containers, tote bags and pouch bags are some of the packaging trends making an impact on the fresh produce industry this year.
Many suppliers and retailers also are using packaging as a communications tool.
"What has consistently worked in the market for retail grocers is to utilize packaging as an effective communications vehicle and to use it to get their message across and to build their brand," said Scott Koppang, director of marketing and sales for Package Containers Inc., Canby, Ore.
It works because attractive packaging draws consumers into the produce department, he said.
Totes, pouch bags growing trend
Increased use of single-handle tote bags or pouch bags is a growing trend, but it may not take the industry by storm, said Bob Degnan, president and chief executive officer at Package Containers.
The bags typically are used for small fruit, ranging from grapes and cherries to stone fruit.
"They have high-graphic capability and can be prepackaged, which avoids labor at the store level," he said.
"The bags increase the sales not only of produce that is in the bag but of bulk items displayed next to the bag," Koppang said.
But Degnan is seeing some pushback, especially from consumers who prefer organic or earth-friendly produce.
"They want to be able to pick their own," he said.
The bags fill a need, he said, "but I think it"s a niche within the produce category."
Packaging Containers makes a single-handle Home-Toter bag out of high-density polyethylene and natural craft or bleached white earth-friendly paper that can be recycled, he said.
Going green, focusing on brands
People are looking to use less plastic in their packaging, yet still have a package that protects the product and maintains product quality, said David Grice, sales and marketing agent for FormTex Plastics Corp., Houston.
In order to do that, some manufacturers are ditching the lid and going to a film covering.
"There are a lot of trays out there with FloWrap," he said.
There"s also a trend toward brand-specific specialty packaging, Grice said.
"Maybe their image is that of a company that is going extremely green in the growing and packing process, and they want their packaging and labeling to reflect that," he said.
Clamshell containers have long been the container of choice for berries, but their popularity continues to build for other commodities, as well, said Jim Scattini, vice president of marketing for Sambrailo Packaging, Watsonville, Calif.
"It"s not just your value-added fresh-cut," he said. "It"s also whole fruits and vegetables that are put in a clamshell."
Shippers are packing avocados, beefsteak tomatoes, kiwifruit, brussells sprouts and other items in clamshells for food safety and ease of handling for consumers and ease of merchandising for retailers, he said.
The company makes about 30 kinds of clamshells, ranging from 4-ounce packages for blueberries to 4-pound units for grapes and strawberries.
More prepared products, controlled portions and portability are trends that Kari Dawson-Ekeland, marketing director for center of the store, adjacent markets, food care division, at Seald Air Corp., Elmwood Park, N.J., has noticed.
Packaging that caters to those trends helps get produce into more eating occasions, allows easy cleanup and adds consumer convenience and product safety, she said.
"The packaging actually serves as the serving dish as well as for protection of the product when it"s in transport," she said.
Increasingly, portion packs of items such as sliced apples or baby carrots enable consumers to buy multiple single-serving packages at one time.
"You can put one in a gym bag or lunch box or take to work without having to rework the package to make it suitable for eating on the go," she said.
Manufacturers also are adding more flavors taking, for example, a product that might be fairly neutral and including seasoning and flavor packets "to make it more of a savory event or a sweet event."
Reusable plastic containers continue their steady growth, said Fred Heptinstall, president and general manager of Tampa, Fla.-based IFCO USA.
Up to 15% of total retail produce cases now are shipped in RPCs, depending on the season, according IFCO.
About 12,000 stores now use RPCs, including most of the major supermarket chains, Heptinstall said.