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Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Packaging paybacks

Developments in perishables packaging technologies continue to advance at a rapid clip, giving both retailers and manufacturers a steady stream of new opportunities to stimulate consumer interest with more functional, convenient, and visually appealing designs.

While the "perfect package" means different things to retailers, manufacturers, and consumers, product protection, convenience, and portability are paramount in almost any packaging discussion. However, a variety of other attributes also now factor heavily into the equation, including presentation, efficient product distribution, longer shelf life, and customization.

Generally speaking, there are two main reasons retailers and manufacturers change their packaging methods: to reduce cost or to increase market share. But it's now entirely possible to achieve both, according to executives of two packaging companies currently in the process of rolling out new applications that they contend will help grocers realize higher sales and greater returns on their packaging investments.

One such advance is in the in-store bakery department, which for many has become a particularly challenging category to balance. In the few short months since Menasha Packaging Co. first debuted its new line of ovenable corrugated baking trays and pans at the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association Expo in June, "the segment that's generated the highest level of interest is supermarket retailers involved in take-and-bake programs," says Scott Sanders, director of sales for the Pittsburgh-based subsidiary of the Neenah, Wis.-based company.

Dubbed "MenashaWare," the new multifunctional trays offer a cost-effective alternative to the paperboard, plastic, and foil pans commonly used for mass-baked goods, Sanders says. "And since the trays are dual-ovenable for use in both microwave and conventional ovens, there's greater baking and cooking flexibility for the user."

Among the product's most unique characteristics, Sanders says, is its ability to enable baked goods to go from the oven directly to the store shelf or the dining room table in the same tray, a benefit that can also be extended to prepared and frozen foods.

FDA-compliant and produced in ASI- and AIB-certified facilities, MenashaWare, according to Sanders, grew out of a trial-and-error process undertaken by an "extraordinarily talented, energized, no-boundaries development team" at the company's suburban Pittsburgh plant. Armed with a fire extinguisher and prepared for the worst, Sanders says, "Our test team baked prototype corrugated samples for a take-and-bake product, all the while offering advance apologies to the customer for any potential disasters."

Looking back, he marvels at the whole ordeal. "The truth was, we were not sure how the pressed corrugated paper samples would perform in an oven. It turns out that it worked great," he says, noting that the product can safely withstand one hour at 450 degrees Fahrenheit—a feat he says "is impossible with any other food packaging product currently out there today."

With MenashaWare, Sanders explains, a food producer can pour or place the ingredients directly into a display-quality tray complete with color graphics. The tray can then travel directly from the oven to the consumer, thereby eliminating the need to directly touch the product following the baking or cooking operation. Further, the nonstick feature eliminates the labor-intensive steps of de-panning, repackaging, washing, and prepping the baking trays.

Sanders also points to the quick-touch handling capability and better holding attributes of the trays that allow food to stay hotter longer—"ideal for prepared deli foods"—while noting the enhanced flavor preservation that they offer over any type of metal tray.

Bang for the buck

Currently, MenashaWare has become the bakery tray of choice for one major New York state-based grocery chain, which uses quarter- and half-sheet baking trays and an eight-inch-by-eight-inch brownie tray, "the latter of which may become the biggest bakery item in our spectrum of products," Sanders notes.

So where does Sanders feel Menasha's products offer the biggest bang for the buck? "They're stronger and more consistent with freezer-to-oven applications for central baking facilities," he replies, "and also the uniformity of finished products, which is what our main bakery partner says they like most about our trays."

Though that particular chain discards the trays prior to displaying product, Sanders says other retailers may want to take advantage of the promotional and informational capabilities that can be used to showcase their names and brands, or to print baking instructions on the bottoms for at-home bake-off items like pizza.

From a pricing standpoint, Sanders says Menasha has no intention of competing with aluminum, which is currently used by many chains. "If you're happy with aluminum, we're not your answer, but for all others, we feel we have the definitive solution," he says, noting that most people rapidly see the value of his company's trays. "Our product is not cost-prohibitive out of gate for those that are quality-conscious," Sanders adds.

For quality-conscious—and environmentally aware—Wild Oats Markets, based in Boulder, Colo., the initial move to replace its petroleum-based plastic packaging with corn-based packaging made from Cargill Dow's NatureWorks PLA (polylactide resin) in 11 Portland, Ore. locations is part of the company's mission to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

Wild Oats, the first North American grocery chain to make the switch to what the local media called "amaizing" packaging, was at press time in the final stages of a 90-day test launch of eight-, 16- and 32-ounce containers, according to Lisa Owen, commercial leader, rigid packaging, for Cargill Dow.

Says Kurt Luttecke, Wild Oats' area director of operations: "Customer response to this new packaging has been terrific. Not only are these new containers 100 percent natural, they're also as functional or better than the plastic tubs the industry uses, as far as strength, clarity, and sealing in the flavor and aroma of our deli products."

Natural advantage

Wild Oats is supporting the test launch with accompanying point-of-sale signage and labels announcing, "Container Made From Corn; Made From 100 Percent Renewable Resources." The three sizes of cold-food containers look identical to traditional plastic containers, with the added advantage of being natural packaging for natural products.

Commenting on preliminary test market results, Owen says Wild Oats is seeing additional sales and heightened customer interest "at least equal to or better than our initial consumer research indicated in all the categories where they're utilizing NatureWorks packaging."

Originally intended to be used primarily for Wild Oats' prepared foods, precut fruit, deli salads, cheeses, and desserts, Owen says the containers are also being used "in salad bars as well as for bulk foods and other items packaged at store level. Employees liked it so much, they just started using it wherever they could."

As part of Wild Oats' consumer information efforts, the chain also offers a brochure explaining how customers can return their cleaned NatureWorks containers for commercial composting that can be used as all-natural plant food for their gardens. According to Owen, "The response to that aspect of the program has been absolutely fantastic, as well, with participation rates as high as 50 to 60 percent."

Wild Oats and its packaging product supplier, Wilkinson Manufacturing, "are leaders in their respective industries because they're offering products with a point-of-sale differentiation from the competition," according to Owen. She says this trend is here to stay.

After the test period concludes, the chain expects to begin a national rollout of NatureWorks to its remaining 66 U.S. and Canadian stores within the next three to six months, says Mark Cockcroft, Wild Oats western region field marketing manager.

Keeping in mind the big picture of the packaging industry, Menasha's Sanders says it's now imperative that manufacturers listen to their customers. "They'll tell you where you should be going. The packaging industry no longer has a 'build it and they'll buy' mentality."
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