Packaging prowess

Retailers and consumers want attractive, convenient and safe packaging for prepared foods and suppliers deliver.

By Carol Radice

No one is going to grab a “grab-and-go” meal or snack in the deli if it doesn’t look appetizing, and the right packaging can play up the best assets of a supermarket’s prepared offerings.

Experts note that deli packaging needs to be attractive and accentuate the product to stir impulse purchases. With environmental concerns a growing priority, retailers and consumers are giving high marks to sustainable packaging solutions. Add the convenience and portability needs of shoppers and it’s clear that deli packaging has a number of roles to fill.

“As retailers work to differentiate their deli sections by adding signature items it is important to be able to leverage the eye-appeal factor and packaging plays in a key role in doing that,” says Katherine White, marketing manager of APET packaging for Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv Corp. The challenge for suppliers, she notes, is balancing features and creating packaging that is reliable, highlights the product and is cost effective. “Consumers are looking for quality and variety at a good value and they want to be able to have a good look at what they’re buying,” says White. “Presentation is more important than ever today.”

According to Erik O’Neil, vice president sales and marketing for SOLUT!, based in Lewis Center, Ohio, the inspiration for the company’s packaging designs often comes from its retail and food manufacturing clients. “As we listen to their needs, we look to provide retailers with innovation that delivers against a consistent set of objectives,” he says.

Stronger and lighter

He points out that all SOLUT! products are made in the U.S. with renewable and recyclable corrugated paperboard materials. The main advantage of this material, notes O’Neil, lies in its strength. “Everything in the world is shipped in corrugated boxes because it is a strong, light-weight material that is easily recycled. We have added value by developing a process that can form a solid three-dimensional food package that is stronger and often lighter weight and less costly than plastic,” he says.

SOLUT! packaging can be used in microwaves and conventional/convection ovens, which, O’Neil notes, adds convenience and functionality for both the retailer and consumer.

O’Neil says the company was recently asked to design packaging that would replace a plastic tray a retailer was currently using in its private label fresh/refrigerated side dish program. The two major criteria were that the new trays had to be able to hold up to 3 pounds of product and be safe to use in a microwave or oven. The result, says O’Neil, was a convenient, highly functional, sustainable package that lowered the total cost of the product.

“The total package weight was reduced by 25% relative to plastic,” he says. “In addition, the shelf space required was reduced by 28% for the same amount of product by optimizing the tray shape and design. What’s more, the tray design and material allowed an additional 120 selling units to be added to each pallet, reducing costs for corrugated cases, cold storage and transportation.”

In addition to a wide variety of stock items, SOLUT! offers in-house design, prototyping and production of custom products. “Our unique process and materials enable us to combine a virtually endless combination of paperboard materials and functional coatings with unique sizes and shapes to achieve the optimal blend of ap­pearance, functionality, sustainability and cost,” says O’Neil.

Bob Saric, national sales manager for Pla­con Corp., based in Mad­ison, Wis., says the trend is toward clear, recyclable materials that display food well and make it look appetizing. Saric says retailers are looking for more sustainable packaging materials with a lower carbon footprint, as long as the packaging doesn’t cost more. “In addition to all that, most retailers are also looking for tamper-resistant or tamper-evident features on all the prepackaged products that they purchase for that extra assurance the food hasn’t been tampered with.”

Saric says consumers’ packaging needs aren’t much different. “They want secure seals and lids that keep the products from spilling or creating a mess on the ride home from the store. They prefer microwaveable packages for reheating hot foods when they get home from the store or for leftovers,” he says.

New materials

To meet the varied demands of retailers and shoppers, suppliers are experimenting with new materials and manufacturing processes.

Placon is using improved blends of polypropylene that are much clearer than the standard homopolymers previously available in the market, according to company officials. “This allowed us to improve clarity, better merchandise the package and add the ability to microwave,” Saric says. “Polypropylene is considered to be an environmentally responsible plastic with a low total carbon footprint,” says Saric. The downside, he says, is that it cannot be recycled easily.

PET packaging, which can be made from recycled bottles, continues to be a growing material market, notes Saric. “We have added new products made from recycled PET that contains a minimum 35% post-consumer recycled bottles.” He anticipates that next year the company will be able to make packaging from 100% post-consumer RPET.

“Consumers are very aware of the environmental impact of their choices and our products are created with that in mind,” says Pactiv’s White. The company recently launched a line of sustainable products called EarthChoice with options including compostable PLA, molded fiber, talc-filled polypropylene and PET containing a minimum of 25% recycled content. “The containers are made from annually renewable resources, are fully compostable in industrial compost facilities and provide a sustainable option for retailers and consumers looking for alternative packaging for their deli items,” says White.

In addition to EarthChoice, Pactiv recently launched Clear Advantage, a line of PET hingeware that features smooth wall design that company officials say improves merchandising. “The enhanced clarity lets the consumer easily see what she’s buying and helps her make her decision when faced with multiple choices. Our SmartLock system features two button locks in front of the container to make it easier for employees to use and has four-corner friction locks that guarantee product freshness,” says White, noting that its easy-open grip tabs address the needs of older consumers.

Officials from Clear Lam Packaging, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., say while packaging made from traditional materials comprises the majority of is production, increasingly interest in earth-friendly packaging is driving innovation in deli packaging. Today, approximately 25% of Clear Lam’s packaging output is earth friendly, according to company officials. “Packaging still needs to be easy to open and use, highlight the product inside as well as address the needs of today’s on-the-go shoppers, but a growing number of consumers are demanding packaging that is more environmentally friendly,” says Roman Forowycz, chief marketing officer for Clear Lam.

In an effort to incorporate renewable raw materials not made from oil, Clear Lam is introducing an environmentally friendly line of flexible and rigid packaging called EarthClear made from plant based plastics and paper. “We are also producing packaging that includes recycled content like old water bottles and we are working toward reducing the weight of all packaging to lessen green house gas emissions and energy consumption,” says Forowycz.

For safety’s sake

Food safety concerns are also spurring innovation at Pactiv, according to White, who says recent high profile events have made tamper-evident packaging important in certain applications. “Pactiv offers tamper evidency in our TE-tainer line of polypropylene containers and we’ve recently expanded that feature to our PET applications,” White says.

Clear Lam launched rigid deli packaging for cole slaw, potato salad and other items that incorporate tamper-evident features and include utensils.

Inline Plastics Corp. is also creating new product options to address food safety concerns. According to Herb Knutson, director of marketing for the Shelton, Conn.-based company, Hangables food containers is their latest version of its Safe-T-Fresh line of tamper-resistant products. The Hangables containers, notes Knutson, have a molded-in hang-tab so the container can be merchandised on racks and pegboard displays throughout the store. “Consumers are more time-pressed than ever and are looking for food solutions that are ready to eat from the container,” says Knutson. “Our Hangables line is ideal for grab and go foods including wet and dry salads, fresh-cut fruit, candies, nuts, and other foods.”

The company has also been improving the environmental and sustainability benefits of its existing container line. “Having previously converted our packaging line to PET the most recycled plastic in the world, our PET material is produced using a unique procedure,” says Knutson, who notes that the process achieves such high energy efficiencies that the containers have a carbon footprint as low as competing containers containing 50% post consumer recycled plastic content.

These enhancements, Knutson adds, were prompted by the increasing consumer desire for more environmentally friendly packaging options. “Consumer preferences are being paid attention to and increasingly retailers are asking rigid plastic container manufacturers to provide a wider selection of environmentally-friendly, sustainable containers.”

Bag a chicken

Penny Sweeney, communications manager for Lenexa, Kan.-based Robbie, says that innovation and quality are two key features driving packaging trends today with much of the push for change initiated by consumers. “Shoppers hold retailers responsible for every emotion they have with a purchase and are looking for nothing less than a great shopping experience. Often times that process begins with a package’s appeal,” says Sweeney.

Consumers are often turned off by packaging that is cumbersome and overwhelms the food, according to experts. To address the issue of over-packaged deli foods, officials at Robbie have created a line of an all-in-one flexible pouches ideal for rotisserie and fried chicken products. The Hot N Handy Pouch features an easy carry handle, a clear window to view the product, a resealable zipper for storing leftovers and can be microwaved.

The eco-friendly flexible pouch features customized venting technology, which helps keep the product juicy and maintain flavor. “Production of one flexible pouch uses 88% less crude oil and generates 85% less CO2 emissions than one rigid dome container. In addition, based on packaging material weight, Hot N Handy Pouches offer a two-third reduction in solid waste introduced into landfills versus rigid dome containers,” says Sweeney.

Robbie just introduced two sizes of its Hot N Handy Pouches designed for grab-n-go wings. “Previous packaging options were boxes, buckets or rigid containers, each of which had drawbacks,” Sweeney says. “For example, buckets tended to expand from the hot moisture of the loaded wings and lids would pop off.  Whereas the characteristics of our pouches provide a package resistant to moisture, tearing and leaks,” she says, noting that a gusseted bottom keeps the pouch upright to prevent unwanted spills. She also notes that there is enough space on all sides of the pouch for printed messages.

Since shoppers find grease-stained packages unappealing, suppliers are developing options for rotisserie and fried chicken. Chicago-based Bagcraft Papercon created a line of grease-resistant flexible paper packaging that helps lock in moisture and, according to company officials, is less costly than other options.

“While rotisserie and fried chickens are destination items in many supermarkets today, there is also a large impulse purchasing component, so functional as well as visual appeal is important,” says Barak Bright, the company’s director of marketing. “Durability and portability are key aspects in maintaining food quality, integrity and presentation of prepared foods and deli selections.”

He notes that retailers spend so much money purchasing the right equipment to cook the chickens, but shortcomings with packaging can adversely affect the outcome. “With our breathable paper, the chicken can rest after cooking whereas other methods often encourage the chicken to keep cooking, the result of which is a dried out bird and bad eating experience,” says Bright.

Available in a wide range of sizes and materials to fit a number of applications, Bright says the easy-to-store packaging can reduce costs by minimizing inventory while maximizing efficiency and space.

The company can also change the size of its flexible packaging to accommodate specific retail needs and the packaging itself was created to work in conjunction with a variety of merchandising cabinet styles.

In addition, the large surface area of the packaging allows marketing messages to be printed on the bag. “For customers who want to have a different look and are focused on the end quality of their chicken this is a great option to consider. It represents a  completely different way to look at packaging and offers the customer a better experience with rotisserie and fried chicken that will make them want to shop at your store more,” he says.

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