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Open Container

The right packaging can encourage shoppers to buy more grab-and-go fresh foods.

​By Pat Pape

It’s a busy Monday morning, and a time- crunched woman on her way to work stops at your store for a breakfast sandwich and a cup of hot coffee. On her way to the checkout, she passes by a display of your fresh, pre-pack- aged salads made from seasonal ingredients — this is the ideal opportunity to sell her one for lunch. How can you get this customer to pick up the salad and close the deal?

If your store carries the quality fresh foods that today’s consumers demand, you need to showcase those items in a manner that motivates consumers to buy. That means a container that enhances the look of the food, keeps it fresh, doesn’t fog up inside and is strong enough to be transported without leaking or crumpling.

“Breakfast has always been strong for c-stores, so now the focus is to get that shopper to pick up something for lunch or dinner [in the same store visit],” said Marilyn Stapleton, marketing manager for Anchor Packaging Inc. of Ballwin, Missouri. “Packages that allow the food to look fresh and appealing, that are leak resistant and reusable, help to differentiate the c-store operator from other segments fi ting for that consumer.”

“Choose packaging with specific features that extend the shelf life of perishables,” recommended Jack Tilley, marketing director at Inline Plastics Corp., a Connecticut company that creates recyclable PET packaging. “A longer shelf life will reduce shrink costs and maintain food quality longer.”

The package also must be the appropriate size for the food item. Few shoppers want to buy what appears to be a miniature sandwich sitting in a huge plastic box.

“The latest trends are smaller sized packaging to meet the needs of consumers [looking for a snack] or who pick up several food items to build a meal,” said Tilley. “Inline has developed a grab-and-go collection of containers, including snack cups, sandwich wedges and hangable containers to meet these needs.”

Label Tells All
In addition to an eye-catching container that pre- serves product quality, each fresh food item requires a package label with a barcode and product details, such as ingredients and calories. “Signs entice customers; labels provide the details,” said Stapleton. “Keep them small enough so they don’t cover up the food.”

She suggests placing them over the package’s closure area as a tamper-resistant feature, with the top portion of the label carrying the product’s description, such as “ham salad.” The label then secures the closure, and the bottom half of the label features the barcode, making it easy to scan at the register.

The actual style and artwork of a fresh food label depend on the targeted end user, according to Melissa Muscarella, associate brand manager for Steuben Foods Inc. of Jamaica, New York.

“For example, an organic product may take a less-is-more approach, and a simplistic label could work well,” she said. “How- ever, for a kid’s product, the label would be more graphically involved and appealing to a child. Regardless, the principal display panel is the first representation of a product, so it should be attention grabbing and illustrate the most relevant and necessary product information, such as flavors, claims and FDA requirements.”

Labels also need an expiration date. “If the store has signage indicating the item is made fresh today, only store personnel need to know when to remove [outdated product],” said Stapleton. “My recommendation is to use color dots for expiration dates which can be read by store personnel only.”

Going for the Green
Consumers are increasingly aware of how their actions impact the environment. A study released in April by Call2Recycle, a non-profit recycling organization, shows that 34% of Americans admit to “green guilt” or the realization that they could and should be doing more to preserve the environment.

According to As We Sow, a non-profit group dedicated to increasing environmental responsibility, the United States has an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and a pack- aging recycling rate of 51%, figures that trail behind other developed countries. Recyclable post-consumer packaging valued at approximately $11.4 billion gets trashed each year. Recyclers have been unable to escalate recycling of high-demand materials due to limited funding for curbside collection programs and a lack of modern recovery facilities.

Some manufacturers have taken steps to produce better-for-the-planet packaging. At the World Expo in Milan last month, Coca-Cola unveiled the PlantBottle, the first fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made completely from plants. Material that forms the bottle has been around since 2009, but until recently it was made from 30% or less plant-based substance. The new, 100% plant version is created from sugarcane and the waste from sugarcane manufacturing.

PlantBottle looks, functions and can be recycled like a traditional PET package. Coca-Cola executives say the material is ideal for beverage containers, and there is potential for the new technology.

Planning Ahead
Many municipalities are saying “no way” to petroleum-based polystyrene and Styrofoam by banning takeout containers made of those materials. Some cities even mandate that all takeout food packages be compostable and/or recyclable. Stapleton predicts this trend will continue and urges convenience store retailers to adopt more earth-friendly food packaging before being forced to do so.

“It’s time to get ahead of these pending changes so stores can transition on their own time frame to curbside recyclable products made with poly- propylene or PET,” she said. “These materials offer improved performance for heat tolerance and merchandising, and they provide the operator with a positive environmental platform.”

Capture the Customer
Once the right fresh food is in the appropriate pack- age, the final step is getting customers to make that purchase. Stapleton suggests placing small displays of chilled food near the register with signage directing shoppers to the fresh foods area.

“Make sure there are signs in or near every display to reinforce the freshness of the food,” she said. “Catch phrases like ‘Too busy to go out for lunch? Take a fresh salad or sandwich with you!’ or ‘Made Fresh Today’ will help to create the need.”

Muscarella believes placing fruit in the sandwich or salad case is a final touch that reinforces the fresh message. “A wooden basket for merchandising fruit is appealing and creates a farmers market and natural fruit shopping experience,” said Muscarella. “A wooden basket allows for air flow to keep the fruit fresh, especially bananas. It must be done in a way where they are not stacked on top of each other. If bananas are stacked, they will build up heat and ripen quickly. Once the heat is absorbed, it cannot be drawn out of a banana.”

Not convinced that new packaging could boost sales? Stapleton advises retailers to refresh the ingredients in current offerings and re-introduce them in a new container.

“Consider taking sandwiches currently wrapped in paper or plastic and place a few of the specialty sandwiches in a clear, rigid container,” she said. “Sandwiches appear larger when they are not wrapped and often look more appealing to the consumer. A side-by-side test of wrapped and rigid should reveal some positive results.”

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a fulltime writer and communications consultant. See more of her articles at