(May 13) FRESNO, Calif. — It all started with a challenge.

In fall 2001, Bruce Peterson, vice president and general merchandise manager for perishables of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., issued a challenge to plastic container manufacturers to develop a new container for shipping and displaying head lettuce in Wal-Mart stores.

“Lettuce did not fit existing reusable plastic containers,” said Gary Pickett, vegetable category manager for Wal-Mart. “The issue was the flexibility of the container. Lettuce is not always the same size.”

Jim Vangelos, president and chief executive officer for Hays Container Services, Fresno, said shipping head lettuce in plastic containers had always posed a problem for the industry.

“Aside from bananas, the largest commodity that nobody could pack in plastic successfully was head lettuce,” he said.

LETTUCE WOULDN’T FIT

Vangelos said the main problem for the plastics industry was that when returnable plastic containers were introduced they were used for as many commodities as possible, but with a limited number of sizes.

“The problem was more sizes meant more cost in the system,” he said. “And that made the system less efficient. So we couldn’t come up with a logical container for head lettuce. It wouldn’t fit in the original sizes.”

So the developers at Hays went back to the drawing board. They talked to a number of plastic manufacturers and got input from a number of growers. Hays ended up working with Rehrig Pacific Co., Los Angeles, a company that has produced plastic containers for a variety of uses.

“The engineers at Rehrig looked at the average size of a lettuce head. They said we need a container that looks and acts like corrugated but is actually an RPC,” Vangelos said.

40 CONTAINERS PER PALLET

What they came up with was a plastic container that can hold the normal assortment of sizes of head lettuce while stacking 40 containers per pallet — the same as corrugated.

“Previous containers could only stack 35 per pallet,” Vangelos said.

Hays produced a prototype in January and took it to growers, who offered their input and suggestions.

“Most container companies didn’t get the grower input,” Vangelos said. “We weren’t going to take any chances.”

Pickett said Wal-Mart is testing the new container with a couple of its suppliers. The company also is testing a number of other containers, though Pickett said preliminary results on the Hays container are encouraging.

“It’s not a slam-dunk yet, but we’re optimistic,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hays is making plans to market the container to the rest of the industry.

FEATURES

Features on the container include a curved interior, reduced ventilation, smooth surfaces to minimize friction, adequate drainage and ample space for labeling. The containers are bar coded and ready to use radio frequency identification.

The container is compatible with other containers on the market, including display-ready corrugated packaging. The ability to send mixed loads of corrugated and plastic is going to become an important issue for the industry, Vangelos said.

“Retailers are pushing us to come to an agreement on working together in the industry,” he said.

For more information, call Hays at (559) 253-7390 or visit www.haysonline.com.