By Brad Perkins, Contributing Editor
In restaurants, how food looks is a key part of how much customers enjoy their meals. Why should it be different in convenience stores? While it may not be on a plate, food presentation is an important part of sales. If the food doesn’t look appetizing, fresh or identifiable, customers may look elsewhere.
“We shop with our eyes first, so packaging design and appealing food presentation is most important,” said Anne Garland, director of foodservice at Sprint Food Stores Inc. in Wrens, Ga.
And that begins with how the food looks in cases and in preparation.
“One thing we’ve always ensured on our hot and cold cases is that there is a strong visual for customers to see the product,” said Ryan Krebs, director of food service at Rutter’s Farm Stores, a 68-store chain based in York, Pa. “We don’t use solid foil wrap so people are guessing what they’re getting. People can clearly see the quality of the product.”
Rutter’s uses clear tops on sandwiches, wraps and subs and is beginning to upgrade its packaging to reflect the industry trend of moving away from Styrofoam and generic packaging.
“Right now we use some Styrofoam products that I’m in the process of revamping,” Krebs said. “I have beef short ribs that go in Styrofoam and that doesn’t go well with me. That white Styrofoam doesn’t align with the quality of the food program I have.”
And he’s not alone. As more consumers want to know what’s inside a container and pick up a package to see what’s inside and read the label, packaging and food buyers need to be aware of how to address consumer needs.
“We experienced a lift in sales upon introducing updated packaging in our stores,” said Amy LaHue, senior category manager at Atlanta-based RaceTrac Petroleum Inc. “Unique packaging helps showcase the fresh ingredients and the integrity of the brand and helps our guests understand exactly what they are getting, from crisp lettuce to colorful toppings to spongy bread.”
It used to be that food storage involved moving food from the rollers, prepared food cases or deli counter into generic packaging. And in some areas, it still works.
“Expanded polystyrene is one of the more stigmatized packaging materials. But you still see it used, a lot, because it works well for egg cartons and other protective products, it’s pretty inexpensive and it’s versatile,” said Mike Richardson, a researcher with the market research firm Freedonia Group.
But with a desire for freshness, awareness of the amount of waste produced and health consciousness, comes change.
“Gone are the days of the plastic wedge,” Garland said. “Nothing screams ‘made on a production line months ago and frozen’ to a consumer like the plastic wedge.”
From eco-friendly packaging to clear labeling, package designers are addressing customers who want transparency and truthfulness in packaging and labeling.
“Design is what first catches the eye, but since people want transparency, smartly-designed packaging that helps communicate the ingredients is a double win,” said Erin Boyd Kappelhof, managing partner of Eat Well Globally, a nutrition communication company in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Packaging can convey the notion that something was freshly picked, handmade in small batches, coming directly from nature or simply unadulterated. For example, if a producer wants to convey the inherent nutritional goodness of a 100% fruit or vegetable juice, they should let the consumer see it for themselves through a clear bottle.”
Along with clarity, portability and portion size have prompted more interactive packaging, especially in hot and cold food cases.
“The majority of our hot food is made to order, so visibility to the contents is not as important as the grab-and-go concept,” said Garland. “For cold grab-and-go, I prefer the craft bag with clear window, or butcher paper style with clear window.”
And while cost can be a factor in choosing whether to go with stronger, more transparent or better looking packaging, the benefits generally offset a slight uptick in material cost.
“In an attempt to keep packaging costs as low as possible, I purchase containers, wraps, etc. that will work for multiple items,” Garland said. “I prefer to have a small, inexpensive label printer so that I can have a custom label with our logo to list ingredients, barcode and retail for my grab-n-go options.”
RaceTrac’s LaHue agreed that needs differ among hot and cold foods and even snacks.
“Some packaging helps temperatures, but not quality,” said LaHue. “It’s important that the packaging is able to maintain both temperatures and quality. A package that keeps the product at a hot temperature will most likely not keep a cold product cold.”
LaHue cited functionality, visibility, portability and the ability to prevent leaks or spills, especially when sitting in the car cup holder, as key to packaging. And while strong packaging is important, many point to portability as the key to better packaging.
“Single-serve packaging for snacks and treats is incredibly helpful for people who struggle with portion control,” Kappelhof said. “It also makes good sense to not annoy consumers by having something that can easily spill, is cumbersome to open, has unnecessary packaging or needs to be repackaged if not finished in a single sitting. These things are also increasingly important as people start to pay more attention to food waste, packaging waste and sustainability in general.”
STICKING WITH BASICS
In some respects, labels are just as important as packaging. Rutter’s promotes its eco-friendly packaging and fresh ingredients on labels and kiosks across the stores. RaceTrac prefers labels that include ingredients and calorie counts. And all agree that key words resonate with customers looking for high quality foods.
“Descriptors like juicy, whole, natural—they resonate with consumers because they imply goodness,” Kappelhof said, while Garland mentioned descriptors such as “fresh”, “local” and “prepared to order” resonate with customers.
Whether its labeling, closing or transparency, updated packaging is key to stocking quality products.
“Packaging is important in purchasing and placement decisions,” LaHue said. “We will not roll out or even test an item if we cannot get packaging that meets our requirements and expectations.”
Of course the marketplace is the ultimate testing ground.
“In terms of packaging performance, a good measurement for success is seeing how long a packaging format goes from being a clever innovation to being the standard format,” Richardson said. “In other cases, it’s a packaging innovation that makes a difference. And distinctive packaging often serves well for brand differentiation. For example, Califia Farms plant milks and coffee drinks, with their bowling pin-shaped packaging, stand out in the refrigerated dairy and dairy alternative case against all the gabled cartons and gallon jugs.”
So where does a convenience store start? Krebs explained packing should be holistic and retailers should ask themselves what is their real foodservice message.
“Look at whether your packaging aligns with what you want with your program to be,” said Krebs. “The quality of my food is just as important as what it’s getting packaged in, even if the package is being disposed of five minutes later. A lot of people say: Why would I pay extra for a container that will be thrown away?’ But, I feel that the packaging aligns with what you’re saying with your program.”