The packaged salad business is booming.

According to Nielsen data for the 52-week period ending Aug. 26, the category was worth nearly $4 billion in annual sales. That represented a 5.7% increase from the previous year, and the category grew 6.6% by volume to 1.4 billion units.

According to Fresh Trends 2017 data, more than half of consumers surveyed bought packaged salads in the past year. With so much demand, retailers and consumers have plenty of options to choose from. So how does a marketer make its package — and what’s inside it — stand out in a crowded field?

“It is critical to have a balanced portfolio of mainstream flavors and recipes as well as new and exciting recipes that deliver on flavor and functionality,” said Alan Hilowitz, director of corporate communications for Ready Pac Foods Inc., Irwindale, Calif.

For example, Ready Pac recently launched its Sweet & Spicy Korean Chopped Salad Kit. The new product, Hilowitz said, makes Ready Pac the first produce marketer to incorporate gochujang in a salad kit. The Korean flavor is red chili paste that delivers “rich umami flavor with measured heat and a slightly sweet finish,” Hilowitz said.

Count Misionero Vegetables, Gonzales, Calif., is another company trying to think outside the bag.

“You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to create something that is actually new and innovative,” said marketing manager Alicia Blanco. “‘Me too’ products will not move the needle with today’s consumer. We have a constant investment in R&D. It’s a combination of working with the seed companies and developing technologies that allow new products to meet or exceed the consumers expectations.”

Misionero has partnered with Sweet Earth Foods to create Sweet Earth Taco Salad and Crispy Asian Wrap. Both products, which were officially launched at the recent PMA Fresh Summit, are vegan and include the plant-based protein seitan.

Blanco said traditional bagged salads are trending lower with single-digit growth, while more complex kits are driving the category with double-digit growth. In other words, consumers want more than a bag of iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing.

“The ability to continuously innovate is the most important factor in remaining relevant,” said Vicky St. Geme, vice president of marketing for Taylor Farms, Salinas Calif. “Standing out amongst your competition and incentivizing the consumer to purchase your product over another by giving consumers new flavor combinations in new packaging formats, and ensuring that the product is the freshest it can be in all segments — organic, kits and blends.”

An important part of product development is staying ahead of the curve on consumer flavor trends, St. Geme said. Popular emerging cuisines include Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian, while trending spices include turmeric and sumac, she said.

Staying in line with those trends, Taylor Farms recently introduced two new flavors in its stir-fry line — pad Thai and coconut curry — which include vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, bok choy, broccoli, snow peas and red cabbage.

Taylor Farms also is expanding its chopped kit and salad kit lines to include new stock-keeping units for a Mediterranean Chopped Salad Kit, Farmhouse Bacon Chopped Salad Kit, Arugula Basil Buttermilk Salad Kit and Spinach and Blue Cheese Salad Kit. 

Fabian Pereira, head of marketing for Fresh Express Inc., said 76% of consumers who buy value-added salads become repeat buyers. However, he agreed that innovation is critical to maintaining category growth.

Pereira said packaging plays an important role in getting shoppers’ attentions, and the Orlando, Fla.-based company is refreshing packaging and reformulating some of its chopped kits to keep up with what consumers want.

“The new packaging emphasizes transparency, premium positioning and appetite appeal through photography,” he said.

The company also plans to launch two new SKUs for both its salads and kits — pomegranate and poppyseed — as well as a Sweet Hearts blend with romaine and butter lettuce.

Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif., also is updating its packaging with a color-coded system that makes it easier for consumers to find what they want.

“We conduct extensive shopper research in the salad category,” said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications. “One thing we hear from U.S. shoppers is the need to more quickly locate the products they desire on-shelf. To address this, Dole has evolved a refreshed bag design that better communicates both brand and product benefits with our customers.”

Apio’s new entry for 2017 was its Eat Smart Salad Shake Ups. The single-serve salads in a patented bowl (complete with a fork) come in Avocado Ranch, Tropical Lime and Raspberry Acai.

Anne Byerly, vice president of marketing for the Guadalupe, Calif.-based company, said the products have been well-received in the market because of their unique container, delicious flavors and a “clean” label with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.