Produce packaging evolving to meet demand during COVID-19 pandemic

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This article first appeared in Produce Business magazine

Produce packaging once almost exclusively referred to cartons, crates and containers that fruits and vegetables traveled in from shipper to store, ultimately for the contents to be sold loose off the shelf.

More recently, the huge growth of fresh-cut salads, the transition from bulk to bag, wrap and trays in top-selling favorites like apples, sweet potatoes and sweet corn, and the advent of steamable fresh veggies and convenience snack packs has seen packaged produce become a bigger part of department sales.

It’s no wonder that the global fresh food packaging market is estimated to grow from UK £61.6 billion in 2020 to reach UK £73.3 billion by 2025, at a compound annual growth rate of 3.5 % during the forecast period, according to the April 2020-published report, Fresh Food Packaging Market by Material, Pack Type, Application and Region – Forecast to 2025, by Marketsandmarkets Inc., a market research firm headquartered in the United States.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in a big way, and consumers’ health and safety concerns turned up the dial on demand for packaging.

“We saw a rise in demand for packaging for the first couple of weeks,” says Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for Harps Food Stores Inc., an 86-store chain headquartered in Arkansas. “Things like apples and oranges were selling better packaged than in bulk. We also quit selling bulk nuts. But that didn’t last long. Things have returned to normal. But it’s not the same. We’re all living with new procedures, policies and precautions in place. As for packaging, shoppers like the idea that an item hasn’t been handled by a lot of other shoppers. They also want convenience, such as being able to pick up a certain quantity at a time. And they still want the packaging to be sustainable.”

Consumers’ heightened concern for health and hygiene is a major reason for the purchase uptick in packaged produce this past spring, say industry professionals. Case in point: IRI data, as presented in a May 19, 2020-published presentation from the Newark, DE-headquartered Produce Marketing Association Town Hall: Consumer Trends, showed a shift in the share of produce that is fixed weight, and thus packaged, from 47.1 % during the 52 weeks ending late January versus 51.2 % of sales during the pandemic.

Most retailers that had previously offered self-serve salad and olive bars, as well as bulk nut purchases, have converted to pre-packaged offerings, further increasing the need for food packaging.

NEW NORMAL SHOPPING HABITS

Everything from COVID-19 quarantines to everyday safeguards has impacted consumers’ grocery shopping habits. This has created ripple effects and opportunities for both manufacturers, retailers and even consumers, when it comes to produce packaging.

“Many people shop less often now, like once a week rather than a couple of times a week, and they buy more at a time. This makes packaging that can help extend the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables even more important,” says Roy Ferguson, chief executive officer of Chantler Packages, headquartered in Mississauga, ON.

Chantler developed PrimePro in the mid-2000s. This packaging technology removes ethylene, a gas that triggers ripening and ultimately decay and can increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables placed in this packaging by 10 to 50 %, according to Ferguson. PrimePro is available in different formats, including bags, pallet covers and sheets, and most recently coated paper boxboard trays. Only three produce items — yellow onions, mushrooms and nuts — do not benefit from this shelf-life enhancing technology, says Ferguson.

“Retailers are slow to adapt to new technology because they think of price, not cost. For example, if a bag costs 1-cent more, but there’s 30 to 40 % less shrink from the product inside, then the cost is inconsequential,” says Ferguson.

Even before COVID, shelf life enhancement was important to processors and retailers as extending produce shelf life means less waste.

Packaging manufacturers say they are receiving requests from retail buyers for a wide variety of package sizes. This is due to consumers either looking to load up on larger packs or buy several smaller packs they can use throughout the week.

“Two-, 3- and 5-pound packaging is trending upward,” says Jeff Watkin, director of marketing for Sev-Rend High Performance Packaging, in Collinsville, IL.”

Cooking at home has skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic. Over half (54%) of Americans report cooking more at home according to information in the April 15, 2020, published report America Gets Cooking: The Impact of COVID-19 on Americans’ Food Habits, by HunterPR, an integrated marketing and public relations firm based in London and New York. As a result, 50% of those asked said they have discovered new brands and products when shopping, and 45% said they seek inspiration to try new foods. What’s more, 51% say they will continue to cook more often at home.

RETAIL REALITIES

In the United States, more shoppers are purchasing groceries via the Internet for either delivery or pick-up at store level. Twenty-three percent of shoppers surveyed said they were shopping more online, and 17% said they were spending more money online, according to US Grocery Trends COVID-19 Tracker, conducted by the Arlington, VA-headquartered Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Bellevue, WA-based The Hartman Group Inc., and published April 9, 2020. Said another way, digital purchasing may account for 4 to 6% of grocery sales with 10% of shoppers buying groceries online, based on information presented in PMA’s May 19 Consumer Trend’s Town Hall presentation.

“A common scenario today is a shopper ordering their groceries at lunchtime, going out to grab something for lunch and then on the way back expecting to swing by and pick up their groceries. This means a turnaround time of 10 to 15 minutes,” says Kurt Zuhlke, Jr, president of Kurt Zuhlke & Associates, Inc., in Bangor, PA. “Packaging makes it easier for a retailer to pick and place produce orders in a box for click-and-collect programs. Also, packaging such as a clamshell does a better job than a paper or plastic bag at protecting that produce on the ride home.”

Fruit and vegetable cartons for CSA programs and produce boxes direct to consumers are also trending, says Sambrailo Packing’s Lozano. “Drive-by farm stands or grab-and-go solutions at farmer’s markets have all become more popular in these times. The convenience, the support of local farms, organic, fresh factors have all been topics that relate to our packaging and how we can best serve our customers and the industry.”

FUNCTIONALITY & SUSTAINABILITY

Thirty-five percent of shoppers report that minimizing the environmental impact of packaging waste is most important to them, according to FMI’s The Power of Produce 2020 report, released February 28, 2020. Nearly the same percentage (34%) of shoppers say package functionality should be balanced with environmental impact. Finally, 31% of shoppers stress that packaging functionality is most important.

In terms of functionality, durability, visually pleasing and packaging right for the product are important functionality points to Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Tops Friendly Markets, a 157-store chain headquartered in Williamsville, NY. In the future, “I think a tray that can hold freshly sliced melons would be nice. The fiber trays don’t seem to handle the dampness of the melon slices. Also, fruit and vegetable tray container options that are durable, but use less plastic, need to be considered.”

The desire for packaging to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus temporarily trumped concerns over sustainability by consumers this spring, say industry professionals.

However, going forward, and especially in light of the June 24-released joint statement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration that there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of the virus, environmentally friendly packaging will move back to the front burner once again.

Shoppers reportedly want to see a greater change from their produce departments on packaging waste, according to FMI’s The Power of Produce 2020 report. Avoiding Styrofoam trays was at the top of the list of solutions, at 42%, and offering bio-degradable packages was also popular at 41%. Remarkably, 39% of shoppers said they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly packages.

Despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, many retailers are still moving forward on their sustainability goals to meet their customers’ requests, says Sambrailo’s Lozano. “This means their vendors (growers) are working to meet these needs. This is where we see successful alignment in making a sustainable packaging option a reality. In recent months, we have packaged new items like organic blueberries, organic artichokes, organic ginger, mushrooms, cherries, and apricots just to name a few.”

Looking ahead, Sev-Rend’s Watkin says, “Produce is the last department in the supermarket tapped by the packaging world. As a result, I think we’ll see packaging here grow even more in the future.”

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