Package choices at grocery stores are already beyond a few options, making “Paper or plastic?” seem downright archaic. As grocers build foodservice-at-retail programs, they are investing in new menu items and the accompanying packaging.
This broader range of offerings stems from grocers’ efforts to get a bigger share of the consumer food dollar. According to the Food Marketing Institute’s most recent Power of Foodservice at Retail study, consumers are interested in foodservice solutions for both immediate and take-home consumption from their primary store.
That interest isn’t to be assumed or taken for granted, however. The joint 2019 State of Retail Foodservice Report from WGB and Technomic reveals that real growth in supermarket foodservice was lower than expected in 2018, at 2.2%. The report confirms the potential of the market but underscores the importance of differentiating a retailer’s foodservice-at-retail business.
Packaging is one element that can make or break a foodservice-at-retail experience. A salad container that pops open and spills the contents onto a conveyor belt makes a shopper think twice about buying it again. The same is true for a leaky cup of soup or packaging that doesn’t keep the food hot or cold.
To provide the best possible transport, food storage and eating experience for shoppers, grocers work with packaging suppliers on materials and formats that work best for their store’s foodservice offerings. Depending on their programs, retailers can use several package types for hot and cold items, beverages and snacks, and products meant to be consumed restaurant-style. The key is picking the right package for the product and how and where it most likely will be consumed.
“On-the-go consumers are shopping across channels for grab-and-go breakfasts, quick snacks and dinnertime solutions,” says Rebecca Casey, VP of marketing and consumer market development for TC Transcontinental Packaging. “Not only do they want everything to be quick and easy, they expect their foods to be premium, fresh and healthy.”
The Eyes Have It
Appearance is crucial for foodservice products merchandised in the store as meal solutions. “If it’s something that people want to take and eat at home, you have to make sure the product in it looks good,” says Dave Fosse, director of marketing, key accounts, for Baxter, Minn.-based Lindar Corp.
One way to do that is to use packaging materials that provide greater clarity. “There are more options today for that type of packaging, including packaging with good clarity on lids,” Fosse says.
Casey agrees. “Another big trend we are seeing in 2019 is a continued transparency in food packaging,” she says. “Consumers want to see the physical product and know more about the product before purchase.”
Transparency goes beyond seeing the food too. “Retailers will need to expand label info, barcodes and innovative package messaging,” Casey says. “The connection to media makes packaging a great way for brands and retailers to connect beyond just the purchase point. They can tell their story through packaging, from food origin points to connections with specific consumers.”
Recognizing the significance of point-of-sale engagement for foodservice-at-retail items such as premade salads and salad bar goods, Madison, Wis.-based Placon offers a packaging solution called Fresh ‘n Clear GoCubes. The recycled PET square or cubed containers come in several sizes and are compatible with the company’s other multi-compartment packages.
Keeping retail products looking and tasting fresh can involve elements other than the package itself. Noluma International LLC, Wilmington, Del., provides services and certification for the light protection of packaging to maintain freshness and help prevent taste changes. “Light protection is particularly important, especially in the summer months and in different regions of the world. A light-protected package that prevents exposure to all kinds of lights, including refrigerator and restaurant lights, and stops light damage keeps the product fresher, tastier and more nutritious,” says Georgia Kollias, VP of global brand development. The company partners with companies to determine the optimal point of light protection for the package content, she says.
Focus on Function
Package integrity and functionality are other important considerations for foodservice-at-retail items. Protecting the quality of the take-home product is paramount for the ultimate enjoyment, whether a food or beverage is consumed in the car, at work or at home.
“Consumers are wanting security, which can mean the safety of food, a package that will not spill or slide during transport to ensure the food stays separated or doesn’t become mixed to avoid cross-contamination. And they want a microwave or easy replating solution,” says Derek Skogen, senior product manager for Placon. The company’s entree package is an example of packaging that that can go straight from a shopping bag to the microwave.
Tamper evidence and proper package structure is also a driver for grab-and-go packaging from Display Pack. “All of our multi-compartment grab-and-go offerings feature lids for this application,” says Hope Ramseyer, marketing communications manager for the Cedar Springs, Mich.-based company. “No one wants a mess in their grocery bag or car, so we ensure that our products snap tight to keep food in its place.”
Grocers with hot food bars, salad bars, deli prepared food and other make-it-yourself food stations can also deliver functionality by offering different sizes of packaging for various offerings, making it more convenient and easier for the shopper. This can include containers with multiple compartments.
“Many chains are saying, ‘We’re not going to pick what the customer wants,’ so they are putting things out and saying, ‘Here’s an entree and some side dishes, so you can pick and choose what you want,’ ” says Fosse of Lindar. “If someone wants a lunch, do they want a dessert with that, or will it be just a single item in a single package? It’s important to give them flexibility to get one of these or one of those.” To that end, Lindar offers single-serve containers for side dishes, bakery items and sandwiches, as well as multi-compartment packages. The company has also added new products based on market trends, including 16- and 32-ounce containers for portion-controlled items.
Placon’s GoCubes are also designed for greater versatility, allowing wet and dry ingredients to remain separated until meal preparation. “This gives the consumer that personal touch of being able to add the spices or sauces on their own and a sense of making the dish themselves,” says Skogen.
Ease of use is another hallmark of functional foodservice-at-retail packaging. TC Transcontinental works with retailers to help them offer personalized meal solutions in different formats. “The Oven N Done Bag is a new alternative for retailers to increase perishable sales by offering consumers a ready-to-cook meal,” Casey says. “Retailers prepack seafood or poultry with fresh vegetables and seasonings that the consumer just cooks in their oven or microwave.” Another new approach, she says, is the company’s meal kit pouch that enables grocers to package their own meal kits for the consumer and place them in the cold case, conveniently placed near checkout.
As consumers seek products packaged in a more sustainable way—Technomic highlighted sustainable packaging as one of the top four global foodservice trends for 2019—they are mindful of packaging used in foodservice-at-retail settings.
In response, many packaging suppliers offer more sustainable materials and formats to minimize food waste and cut down on package waste.
“If there was ever a hotter topic, other than meatless proteins, it’s this. Consumers are demanding packaging sustainability and, state by state, governments are or soon will,” says Matthew Banghart, director of the Ready Chef Go brand for Elkay Plastics, Commerce, Calif. “If you look at sustainability, there are three legs to that stool. There’s performance: Can we do a sustainable product that does what a nonsustainable product does? And there is also verification: Can you verify that your packaging is sustainable? The last one is value.”
Banghart says Elkay will soon launch more sustainable solutions for foodservice-at-retail applications. The items will include packaging for cold refrigerated foods as well as heat-and-serve and ready-to-cook items.
Lindar, for its part, has teamed up with plant-based bioplastics company Good Natured to offer greener packaging options, including clear and reusable containers suitable for the foodservice area of grocery stores. “We also use a lot of post-industrial [material] for our packages—it was a food package before and it will be again,” says Fosse.
Skogen also reports growing interest in sustainable package features among today’s discerning shoppers. “We are taking post-consumer collected PET bottles and thermoforms and bringing them back to Madison to be processed back into food contact-grade PET material that is being used in food and retail packaging,” he says. Placon is able to use up to 90% post-consumer recycled content in its EcoStar PET material.
Greener packaging is also an emphasis at Display Pack, which uses recycled PET material with a resin identification code of 1 for its PET offerings. “We also produce our unique two-piece design for our snack packs to reduce the amount of plastic material required in the overall package,” says Ramseyer. “We intentionally design our offerings to fulfill the role required by keeping strength, durability and visual appearance in mind while still minimizing the overall footprint of the package as much as we can.”
At TC Transcontinental, Casey says that as sustainable packaging becomes a greater priority for those who produce and consume food, the company is regularly working on solutions, from flexible packaging that reduces the number of truckloads required by delivery companies to innovations in a new multilayer film. “We hope to play a big role in the post-consumer cycle by creating packaging that can be reused, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable,” she says.