(March 1) The days when supermarket shoppers pored over tables of fresh fruits and vegetables and personally plopped their produce into a paper bag are waning.

Today, nearly every commodity is available prepackaged. And as resealable bags, clamshell containers and high-graphic master cartons catch on, shippers are finding that the produce package can be a ready-made merchandising tool that helps their wares stand out among the plethora of products vying for attention.

Consumers’ time is at a premium these days, warns Bud Floyd, vice president of marketing for C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., so a package must make a good first impression instantly.

Packaging has changed since the 1980s, he says, from simply telling people what’s inside to actually interacting with consumers and projecting carefully crafted images. C.H. Robinson’s The Fresh 1 and its new Fresh ’n Easy labels, for example, are designed to reflect the company’s heritage and tradition and to elicit consumer trust.

CLAMMING UP

The onslaught of clamshell containers has been one of the most significant packaging developments of the past decade. Once the exclusive domain of strawberries, clamshells now contain everything from grapes to grapefruit.

Retailers became enamored of clamshells when they were introduced in the late 1980s. They protect their contents, save labor and keep grapes and strawberries off the floor, says Dave Baum, vice president of sales for Pacific AgPak, Watsonville, Calif.

They attract consumers because they’re convenient, they enhance food safety and they extend shelf life.

Rigid plastic containers also catch shoppers’ attention because they help create the impression that the product inside is premium quality, says Jeanne Clark, marketing manager for Pactiv, City of Industry, Calif.

“When people go into the produce department, they buy with their eyes,” she says. “If the fruit looks good, the product is going to fly off the shelves.”

J.H. Harvey Co. LLC, a chain of 43 stores based in Nashville, Ga., calls attention to scuppernongs, large, bronze grapes indigenous to the Southern states, by selling them in clamshells, says Michael Purvis, director of produce operations.

Suppliers regularly use clamshells to differentiate organic produce from traditional product, and Clark points out that the containers provide an easy way to label product and present the nutrition information consumers crave, along with care and handling tips and recipes.

Clamshells help eliminate some of the “information overload” consumers can face on point-of-purchase materials by providing a convenient place for nutrition facts and other data on the package that consumers take home with them, says Peter Goulet, director of produce merchandising for Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford Bros. Co., a chain of 122 corporately owned stores that also supplies other supermarkets.

Late in the year, when chestnuts are in season, Hannaford Bros. sells the nuts in clamshells that contain recipes and instructions on how to use them. This often leads to impulse sales, Goulet says.

Clamshells also can enhance the presence of low-profile items like specialty potatoes. Goulet merchandises fingerlings and purple varieties in clamshells so they won’t get lost among the more popular varieties.

SEALED FRESHNESS

Resealable bags, some with built-in zippers, are another produce packaging hit.

Michael Smith, owner of Designsmith & Co., Minneapolis, says resealable bags attract consumers because they can be easier to store in the refrigerator than clamshell containers. They work especially well with 15 ounces or more of value-added salads.

J.H. Harvey Co. offers grapes in resealable bags, but Purvis says he tries to put out several weight options for shoppers to choose from because not everyone needs a full bag.

John Greti, produce manager for the single IGA Supercenter in Copiage, N.Y., says resealable bags are great for grapes, but he also uses regular poly bags to help keep bananas warm in winter and to prevent the fruit from being handled. This sometimes leads to increased sales because a consumer who wants, say, three bananas, is more likely to take home a prepackaged bag of five than break open a bag and remove the ones she doesn’t need. Greti says 75% of the bananas he sells are packaged in poly bags.

COLORFUL CARTONS

Even the cartons produce is shipped in have taken on a more alluring look, says Vikas Singhal, director of marketing of the Federal Way, Wash.-based Weyerhaeuser Co., who works out of the Ahaheim, Calif., office.

“They’re improving the graphics significantly,” he says. “They’ve gone from brown, one- or two-color boxes to white with four or five colors.”

The latest trend is to show as much of the product as possible with boxes with cut out “windows” or without tops. Some boxes are designed with lower lips that make it easier for consumers to see and get at the contents.

Today, up to 70% of club stores use high-graphic containers or boxes with some type of special feature, he says. And the trend is spreading to mainstream chains like H.E. Butt Grocery Co. and the Kroger Co. These boxes can cost 5% to 40% more than plain containers, but they’re worth it, Singhal says.

The corrugated container the product is delivered in is as important as the package itself at club stores and any location where the box is put on display, says Marji Morrow, director of marketing for Ready Pac Produce Inc., Irwindale, Calif.

The company has created a continuous mural effect with stacked display cartons of Ready Pac’s Grand Parisian salad.

Display boxes are used at the J.H. Harvey Co. during the winter to enhance the Florida citrus display, Purvis says. He also attracts consumers by setting out Halloween-themed bins loaded with pumpkins in the fall.

IGA’s Greti says display cartons appeal to consumers because they give information like the brand name and place of origin. Without this data on either a box or a label, “you will get a ton of questions,” he says.

Goulet of Hannaford Bros. says graphic cartons make a greater impact than the wooden crates he once used for spillover displays. He uses apple boxes in the fall, switches to citrus in winter and then melons in summer.