Natural Foods Merchandiser

Packaging innovation hits natural foods

Nicole Bernard Dawes is a busy working mom who?s looking to keep her 2-year-old well fed. ?I constantly need to give my son a snack on the run, but I?m not willing to sacrifice quality for convenience,? she says.

Of course, lots of moms want the same things—convenient and healthy food for their kids—but not many moms have the power Dawes does to conjure such food into being. It?s one of the perks Dawes gets as president and chief operating officer of Late July Organic Snacks, which last October introduced organic trans-fat-free sandwich crackers. The two varieties of sandwich cracker—peanut butter and cheddar cheese—come in both 6-ounce boxes and in single-serve packs of six crackers.

Dawes? use of snack packaging for Late July represents a growing trend toward providing natural foods buyers with convenience in packaging. For example, Earthbound Farm, the country?s largest supplier of organic produce, has taken convenience one step further by offering peeled mini-carrots and pre-washed ready-to-eat apple slices in both 12-ounce family packs and 2-ounce mini-packs. This move toward convenience makes sense, but until recently, it wasn?t how the natural food industry did business.

?In traditional stores, half of the cracker aisle is devoted to snack packs and on-the-go packaging,? says Dawes. ?In natural foods stores, there just isn?t a whole section devoted to convenience packaging. It?s been a real uphill battle on the retailer end because there just isn?t a lot of retail space allotted? for organic snack convenience packs. She says Late July has been able to get its 6-ounce boxes of crackers into about 6,000 stores nationwide, but only half that many retailers have ordered the single-serve packs.

But times are changing. Other organic food purveyors, from major players such as Organic Valley to newcomers such as Healthy Handfuls, are bringing out snack packages. As the number of companies producing convenience packed food continues to grow, Dawes expects retailers to create a dedicated convenience section to showcase them.

Snack-size packaging doesn?t just make sense from a convenience standpoint; it can also create customer satisfaction through a more uniform, high-quality consumption experience. ?A portion-size package preserves the integrity of the product until the moment you open the package,? says Fritz Yambrach, associate professor of Packaging Science at Rochester Institute of Technology. ?In contrast, when you open a bulk package, the first serving is good, but each time you open the container for subsequent servings, you compromise the product?s quality. So additional packaging really does improve the quality of the product.?

The issue of additional packaging is a thorny one for natural and organic food companies, many of which are committed to being as environmentally sensitive as possible. Dawes tries to mitigate the effect of her convenience packaging by using 100 percent recycled paperboard trays for her snack-sized bags of crackers.

Other companies are taking more dramatic steps when it comes to using earth-friendly packaging. For instance, the FreshPak Noodle Bowls from Annie Chun?s All Natural Asian Foods come in a biodegradable plastic bowl.

?We?re making Asian food as easy as spaghetti ? but we?re also putting a gourmet, higher quality spin on the food itself,? explains Steve Broad, president of Annie Chun?s. ?When we decided to create an instant noodle bowl, we did research in Asia and identified this biodegradable container. We thought it would be great to use a container that [let us avoid] throwing a bunch of plastic into the earth.?

Broad says that Annie Chun?s is the first U.S. packaged food company to use this sort of biodegradable container, so there were some higher costs to absorb and sourcing challenges to iron out. Still, he thinks that the investment will pay off both in terms of goodwill and good karma. Annie Chun?s puts an earth emblem on the front of its package identifying the container as biodegradable, a factor that Broad believes helps Annie Chun?s to compete in the growing bowl product segment.

Customer feedback, press coverage and retailer response have all been positive. ?From a personal standpoint, when we?re producing a couple of million units a year, it?s a feel-good thing to know that these packages will compost,? Broad says.

In addition to convenient and biodegradable packaging, a number of natural food companies have begun moving in interesting design directions. Wes Douglas heads up the packaging practice at Chicago ad agency Maddock Douglas. He has developed concepts and packaging for such brands as Michael Season?s All Natural Potato Chips over the past decade. ?I used to think of natural foods products as using natural colors, earth tones, beiges, olives and creams,? Douglas says. ?Now I?ve noticed a lot more injection of color, a little more ?Pick Me!? on the package. I?ve just noticed that within the last couple of years.?

Douglas says some of the newly jazzed-up design in the natural foods aisles may be coming from retailer requests. As natural foods become a bigger part of store merchandise, retailers want the products to grab consumer attention and move quickly off the shelves. ?Michael Season has been able to be more courageous with his packaging because his customers—the grocers and distributors—are demanding that he make the packaging more interesting. They want the product to move and so they encourage Michael to take more chances than in the past.?

One company that?s getting noticed for taking chances with its design is Phoenix-based Revolution Tea. A purveyor of high-quality whole-leaf teas, Revolution Tea has borrowed a page from the cosmetics industry and gone glam, sheathing its product in gleaming triangular retail tins.

Such dramatic design may raise eyebrows, but is it ringing cash registers? Can product packaging really make a major difference in sales? Curt Finckler, brand manager for Nelson Bach?s Rescue Remedy homeopathic spray, would tell you that it can make a huge difference.

?When the Rescue Remedy product was originally introduced, the spray was just a bottle with a UPC code. ? It didn?t have much pop off the shelf,? Finckler says. By packaging the spray inside a carton, Finckler suddenly gained plenty of additional ?billboard? space on the front of the carton on which to explain the five flower essences in the spray and promote its fact-acting and discreet qualities with callouts.

The new product packaging brought Nelson Bach impressive results: year-over-year sales increases of 43 percent to 50 percent during a time when other products saw only 5 percent sales increases. ?The natural products audience is information-driven,? Finckler says. ?They make purchases based on product information, so we want to give them a message that conveys the features they are seeking so they can make their purchase decision just by looking at the shelf.?

Aaron Dalton is a New York-based free-lance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 2/p. 14, 17

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