Dave DeMots, CEO of Package Containers, thinks consumers’ leery approach to bulk produce because of the COVID-19 pandemic will create opportunities for pre-packed grab-and-go options. ( Courtesy Package Containers )

Many unanswered questions still hang over the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, but the health crisis, which froze some food sales outlets and forced major alterations in others,  also changed consumer buying habits, said Nicole Lipson, segment marketing manager with Atlanta-based packaging manufacturer WestRock.

“What we saw early in the crisis with consumers mirrored what we saw in our own homes — people stocking up their pantries as they prepared to shelter in place; we saw strong demand in the processed food, agriculture, healthcare and beverage markets,” Lipson said.

There also was a shift to online and away from in-store purchases, Lipson noted.

“E-commerce has been growing and is expected to continue to grow,” she said.

Packaging demand remains consistent, while distribution channels are shifting rapidly to accommodate increased online ordering, said Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president of the Itaska, Ill.-based Fibre Box Association.

“The delivery of products direct to consumers, bypassing brick-and-mortar retail, has been growing for a few years and accelerated dramatically during the pandemic and resulting closures,” Kenyon said. 

“For many Americans, it is conceivable that their return to physical retail locations will be slow; the convenience and comparative safety of home delivery may take hold with consumers who had not already made the transition and gain increased traffic from those who were already ordering online before COVID-19 hit.”

Corrugated boxes are essential for transporting products throughout the supply chain and all the way to consumers’ doorsteps, Kenyon said.

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“In March, shipments of corrugated boxes spiked as consumers engaged in ‘pantry stocking’ and ordered essential supplies online,” she said. 

“Whether products are delivered to retail locations or direct to consumers, they are transported in corrugated. The main difference between the two is the number and size of the boxes. For e-commerce, we need more, smaller boxes. For retail stores, products are shipped in larger quantities requiring fewer, but bigger, boxes.”

The fallout from the pandemic has implications for produce packaging, Lipson said.

“Produce is highly perishable, and demand for packaging that keeps products fresher longer is going to increase,” she said. “We could also see demand for larger pack sizes if consumers make fewer shopping trips.”

Foodservice sales, brought to a standstill during the height of the pandemic, were beginning to recover by early June, and “that should bode well for growers and value-added manufacturers,” added John Huston, WestRock’s business unit sales manager.

As memories of the pandemic fade, some lessons will remain, said Sara Lozano, manager of marketing and product development with Watsonville, Calif.-based Sambrailo Packaging.

“We expect more consumers to rely on packaging now more than ever. With county and state regulations per the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), we are seeing a rise in packaging needs since late March early April.”

McAllen, Texas-based Fox Packaging, which makes breathable bags, has seen demand for its products increase in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, said Victoria Lopez, marketing representative.

“We have experienced a greater demand as during this time packaging is being recognized as a valuable tool for ensuring product and consumer protection, increased shelf life, and a mode of safe delivery,” she said. “There was also a notable demand for automation equipment to streamline the packing, end-of-line, and distribution processes.”

In the first stages of the pandemic customers needed to know that Kwik Lok could provide products in the face of uncertainty, said Karen Reed, marketing and communications director with Union Gap, Wash.-based Kwik Lok Corp.

“Many have seen increased sales and want to be sure we can provide additional product and that we will be there for them should they need technical support,” she said. “Kwik Lok has responded by making sure we have the inventory positioned around the globe to fulfill their needs.”

How the pandemic will affect fresh product sold loose at retail is hard to say, said Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager with Wenatchee, Wash.-based tree fruit grower-shipper Stemilt Growers LLC.

“It will be interesting to see how packaged versus bulk produce does long-term and as states start to loosen restrictions,” Shales said. 

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“We certainly saw increased demand for bagged apples during the stock-up time of March and April. We are now into cherry season, where all fruit is sold in consumer packs of some kind. We expect more demand for packaged produce, especially if online grocery shopping remains heightened.”

Top-seal containers may see a rise over clamshells because they use 20% less plastic on average than clamshells, Shales said.

“Any consumer pack works well for the retailer doing pick-up or grocery delivery because they are UPC’d and move through the supply chain with ease,” she said. 

“They are also consumer friendly — easily telling the online shopper how much they are buying when shopping for produce, and then delivering that item in a closed pack.”

Canby, Ore.-based Package Containers is hearing that retailers are concerned about minimizing shopper exposure to bulk fruit displays, said Dave DeMots, CEO of Package Containers.

“One solution is pre-packed, grab-and-go bags; this has historically meant additional poly bags, but with increased concerns about single-use poly and the impact that has on the environment, more customers are looking for alternatives like our recyclable and compostable paper bags,” he said. 

The buffet-style restaurant has “all but disappeared” because of COVID-19, and there is some parallel with the retail environment, DeMots said.

“The produce department, prior to the outbreak, was essentially a buffet-style shopping experience,” he said. “With increased concerns about virus transfer, the merchandizing of the produce department will evolve to where bulk displays will have to be different than they were way back in February. Using pre-packed paper bags are the way to ‘socially distance’ the fruit display in a sustainable way.”

Atlanta-based box manufacturer Georgia-Pacific has seen an increase in demand for some customers and decreases for others, as various industry sectors have been affected differently, said Michael Hayford, area general manager with GP Corrugated.

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“We’ve worked closely with customers with higher demand to meet their unexpected spikes in March,” he said. 

“As restaurants and retailers start to open back up, the packaging for foodservice and supply shipments will begin picking back up. Consumers are relying on deliveries more than ever, but it’s not currently at a volume to offset declines in other sectors.”

It is also “reasonable to expect” that much product packaging will evolve to meet changing dynamics as Americans stay home more and go out less, the Fibre Box Association’s Kenyon said.

“Brands have enhanced opportunities to engage their customers through packaging that is sustainable, recyclable, responsibly sourced, and made from renewable raw materials,” she said.

Another “big win for brands” can be achieved by utilizing the package as a “marketing workhorse,” Kenyon noted.

“Corrugated boxes can be printed with high-quality graphics that support the brand’s identity and messaging, even more important when retail displays are out of the picture,” she said.