(May 20) The main purpose of a shipping container is to get product from point A to point B in good condition. But retailers have found that they can create a custom look for their produce departments through the kinds of containers they use and the way they place them.

Vic Ventimiglia, owner of Vic’s World Class Market, Beverly Hills, Mich., says the vast majority of produce he receives at his two stores comes in traditional brown cardboard boxes. But he loves it when he receives the high-graphic boxes that some shippers use to differentiate their product from the competition.

“When we see good boxes like that come in, we save them and use them for our displays,” Ventimiglia says.

Ventimiglia creates the look of a farmers market or a produce terminal by placing boxes around traditional table displays. He stacks them three high and opens the ones on top. When he does that, he’s found that customers tend to take product from the boxes before they take it off displays.

“It gives (consumers) a feeling that they’re touching it before anybody else touches it,” he says. “It gives it a fresher feel.”

Customers actually open up boxes of bananas stored under the banana table because they believe that fruit is fresher, he says.

In Rockville, Md., Stanford Steppa, president of the 12-store Magruder Inc. chain, says he likes the Day-Glo boxes some Chilean fruit comes in, but he’s also doing a lot more with clamshell containers to create a neat, orderly look in his produce sections and protect the product and reduce shrink at the same time.

Steppa receives berries as well as baby red, white and yukon potatoes in clamshell containers.

BIGGER MARKET

The market for packaged potatoes, veggies and berries in clamshells is getting bigger and bigger, he says.

In fact, Magruder’s produce clerks take table grapes that arrive in bags and place them — bag and all — in quart strawberry containers to reduce shatter and excessive sampling. Ideally, clerks would remove the grapes from the bags first, but that can be too time consuming, Steppa says.

Ventimiglia says he, too, receives more product like hydro lettuce and mini squashes in clamshell containers these days.

“The more stuff we can get in clamshells, the easier it is for us to put it up and sell it,” he says.

Clamshell manufacturers say uses for the clear, plastic containers increase every day and for good reason.

“There’s no question that you get better arrivals with clamshells,” says Dave Baum, vice president of sales for Pacific AgPak, Watsonville, Calif.

He says they increase shelf life, are easier to pack than those mesh strawberry baskets that can cut or damage berries, and they lessen potential for contamination because there is less handling.

“In a clamshell, you can do a lot of things with your display to enhance merchandising,” adds Jeanne Clark, marketing manager at Pactiv Corp., Lake Forest, Ill. “You can go two to three layers high, which means produce workers aren’t out there continually restocking, and you don’t have empty displays.”

Clamshells make it easy to stick on Universal Product Codes, and most manufacturers offer 1-pint to 4-pound containers that are compatible with the common footprint shipping containers. They also are expanding their use to grape and cherry tomatoes and other commodities.

RPCs IN THE MIX

Returnable plastic containers also are showing up in produce departments, with mixed results.

Magruder’s Steppa says he’s not interested in them. “I don’t want a headache,” he says. “I’d rather just pitch the box.”

Jim Nolan, senior vice president of the Fibre Box Association, Rolling Meadows, Ill., says there’s no need to track or account for corrugated containers, and he says corrugated containers can be designed to accommodate specific commodities rather easily, thus avoiding empty space in the carton.

And the new high-graphic containers enable retailers to create large displays that are pleasing to the eye.

“You can’t do that with plastic — they’re either green or black — and there’s not a lot of room for signage,” Nolan says.

But Ventimiglia of Vic’s World Class Market says he participated in a test with RPCs and likes the fact that they cut down on trash. “I think it’s the way to go with a lot of products,” he says.

He doesn’t like that they must be stored and returned to the shipper, but he says he expects to be using them eventually.

Wal-Mart Supercenter, Bentonville, Ark., is a longtime supporter of RPCs.

Ron McCormick, produce director, says 1,200 of the chain’s Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets are designed to accommodate RPCs, and about 75 percent of their produce arrives in the containers. Wal-Mart is testing an RPC for bananas, McCormick says. Once a container is selected, he expects that percentage to increase significantly.

“Customers say RPC stores are fresher and cleaner, have more variety and have that farmers market look suggesting fresh from the field,” he says.

McCormick says RPCs facilitate product rotation, eliminate the need to bale cardboard and result in significant reductions in hours to stock produce, allowing associates to focus more time on customer service.

They also improve sanitation because the display fixture — the RPC — is cleaned each time the product is refilled.

“This avoids debris and sugar buildup, leaving the department cleaner and reduces problems of fruit flies, etc.,” McCormick says.

Manufactures hope more retailers will see things Wal-Mart’s way.

“One of the biggest benefits of RPCs is the one-touch display, where the retail laborer can just take the box and put the container on display,” says Brian Beattie, senior vice president of marketing at Chep, Orlando, Fla. “As it sells down, they can pull the old container off, put the new one in and gently pour what was left in the old container on top.”

RPCs reduce labor, make a sturdier stack than corrugated containers, minimize damage to product and provide good cooling capability, adds Mike Davis, vice president of field operations for IFCO Systems, Tampa, Fla.