Apple packaging demand grows during pandemic

An apple pouch bag from Rice Fruit Co.
An apple pouch bag from Rice Fruit Co.
(Courtesy Rice Fruit Co.)

The COVID-19 crisis has supercharged apple packaging in multiple ways, marketers say.

Consumer interest has spiked “in three key areas” during the pandemic, said Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing with Gardners, Pa.-based grower-shipper Rice Fruit Co.

Shoppers are looking to “keep their dollars local;” buy bagged items; and minimize “engagement with others” by opting for online, pick-up or self-checkout, Rice said.

More shoppers seem to be choosing bagged apples, Rice said.

“To meet the increased grab-and-go demand, we have expanded our options in poly, pouch and totes to remain nimble to our customer needs,” she said.

Packaging is big in New York, too, said Cynthia Haskins, president and CEO of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.
“New York has seen an uptick in 3-pound and even a 5-pound poly bag movement,” she said. “Totes were quite popular during the fall harvest and several retailers are continuing to use them.”

COVID-19 has slowed a movement away from plastic bags, said George Harter, vice president of marketing at Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower-shipper CMI Orchards LLC.

“Before the pandemic, there were a lot more conversations surrounding fiber and compostable packaging exploration,” he said. 

“As soon as the pandemic hit plastic was suddenly back on the table as a hot commodity for the perceived food security it offered.”

Plastic also happens to be “the fastest packing option,” other than bulk, for CMI’s warehouses to pack, thanks to automation, Harter said.

“We’re still busy pursuing a number of fiber packaging innovations; however, the urgency is not as intense as it was pre-COVID-19,” he said. “Even though bags remain in high demand, we have a tree-full of all sizes to sell, and bulk is a very important piece to our growers’ livelihood.”

Sizing tends to be larger this year, which also creates opportunities for “some great bulk promotional opportunities,” Harter said.

Bulk down

Bulk sales are down, though, thanks to COVID-19, said Brianna Shales, marketing director with Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower-shipper Stemilt Growers LLC.

“Packaging is still very present in apple merchandising because of the pandemic,” she said. “Bulk sales and volume are down 8% nationally, while packaging is up double digits in sales, and even higher for organic packaged.”

Many retailers are promoting apples in Stemilt’s 3-pound Lil Snappers “kid-sized” fruit, which helps promote smaller-sized apples to families, Shales said.

“We also are seeing lots of movement on 5-pound Apple Lover pouch bags,” Shales said. “It matches well to shopper needs right now.”

“No touch” produce and pack sizes that help consumers “stock up,” and thereby make fewer store trips, are an effective combination, Shales said.

For bulk fruit, Stemilt has a Farm + Famous paper tote bag program that helps retailers move product, Shales said.

“But the unique part from other tote programs is that we ship them all toted up — 8 4-pound tote bags in a display-ready box,” she said. 

“It really helps retailers save on labor and time, which are both pain points because of the pandemic.”

Demand for pre-packaged produce is at an all-time high, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Apple Committee.

“With many consumers utilizing online shopping platforms, pre-packaged options are much easier to price and fulfill than their bulk counterpart,” she said. 

The high demand for pre-packaged produce does have downfalls, though, as most pre-packaged produce requires smaller fruit, and the larger fruit still needs to move, Smith said.

“New and inventive packaging solutions for larger fruit will be important as this pre-packaged trend continues to grow,” she said.

The pandemic will continue to create challenges through at least the first of the year, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing with Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit Co.

“However, COVID is not known to be transferred through food, and we have seen an increase in demand for fresh produce, and more specifically, packaged product since March,” Sinks said. 

“Packaged items provide less exposure to other shoppers when on the retail shelf. They are also easy for grab-and-go and make for a simple online purchase for those that are participating in grocery pick-up or delivery.”

No chances

Meanwhile, packinghouses are taking no chances, said Roger Aguirre, director of apples and pears with Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.

“Our packinghouses have put in place strict protocols to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks,” he said. 

“These include stringent entry measures, with our facilities hiring third-party specialists to carry out health risk assessments for everyone who enters their premises.” 

Oppy also has seen “increasing sales velocity” for bagged apples, Aguirre said.

“This consumer behavior seems to stem from a misguided assumption that bagged fruit is somehow safer, despite many local and international authorities repeatedly clarifying that there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted via fresh produce; yet, the trend persists and as an industry we ultimately have to cater to consumer demand.”

Brewster, Wash.-based grower-shipper Honeybear Brands saw an uptick in demand for packaging at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, and the company launched a 5-pound pouch it called the Big Bear Snack Pack, said Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing.

“I do believe things have stabilized now, as consumers have gained confidence again in shopping in-store and online,” he said. 

“We are selling bulk tray packs, as well as polys and pouches that complement each other and give shoppers the different choices they desire. If a retailer is going to meet varying customer needs, they need to carry a mix.” 


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