(Feb. 3) The sheer number of commodities — not to mention varieties — available in a typical produce department keeps growing. And as technology advances and new materials become available, the smorgasbord of packaging options continues to expand.

As produce experts, it’s your job to decipher which packages work best for what commodities and how the overall style or design of the package fits your store’s operations.

Do you merchandise apples in molded fiber trays, or are they individually stacked?
Are strawberries best displayed in clamshells, or do your customers prefer to hand pick each berry?

Don’t forget to think about how cost-effective each package is, either, and what it means for your bottom line.

Consider the pros and cons of each, and make educated decisions that will help you move greater volumes of produce through your department.

PAPER PRODUCTS

If you were to look back at produce departments decades ago, most commodities were packaged in cartons and bags made from paper products. Paper is still one of the predominant packaging products in the produce industry.

At the Hen House store in Leawood, Kan., one of 15 stores owned by Balls Foods Stores Inc., Kansas City, Kan., produce manager Wayne King says the store relies on molded fiber trays for its apple displays. Produce department employees place the apple trays, with apples still sitting in them, directly on the display rack.

“We don’t individually stack the apples. The trays protect the apples during storage and shipment. They keep them from being bruised or damaged,” King says.
Molded fiber trays come in a number of configurations, says Ted Smith, president and general manager of Keyes Fibre Corp., Wenatchee, Wash., and they are primarily used with apples and avocados. The company manufactures molded fiber trays.

“The best thing about them is how the fruit is actually delivered to retailers,” Smith says. “The trays are designed to prevent bruising, to absorb moisture in the box so you don’t see puddling or wax attaching to it and to help the natural respiration process of apples in particular.”

Smith says the trays nest inside one another, requiring less space in a warehouse compared to other packaging options, and the equipment used to pack the trays reduces the amount of labor on the packing end.

“The trays go through the plant without having people touch them,” Smith says.

Smith says the trays traditionally have been green or purple, but the company introduced black trays in October 2000. He says that while the company did have some customers use the black trays for special occasions, it wasn’t until October of last year that a major grocery chain switched all of its apples to the black, 40- by 60-centimeter black tray.

“No one else has done that,” Smith says. “They leave a really nice presentation at retail.”

He says the company also has seen interest in the Mark VI, a half Euro-size tray (40 by 30 centimeters) that, when overwrapped, provides a good package for consumer packs of apples.

Corrugated boxes and cartons also can add color to produce display cases. At The Barn Markets, a chain of six stores based in Burlington, Ontario, shoppers see corrugated cartons used as attractive waterfall displays built off the ends of gondolas or endcaps.

King says the No. 1 benefit of corrugated boxes is good graphics.

“If they are the right size and shape, you can take them from the truck and onto the display without touching (the product). It’s better for the product and for us,” King says.

Most packaging products containing paper also are recyclable or made from recycled products. Keyes’ molded fiber trays are made from 100 percent recycled newspapers, Smith says. Many paper products are perceived as being more environmentally friendly than other packaging options, too.

There are some downsides to corrugated boxes and paper products, however.
“Sometimes they don’t withstand a lot of rough shipping,” King says. “Their stacking ability depends on what they are holding, and if cases get wet, they will fall apart or collapse.”

CLAMSHELLS

One alternative to corrugated boxes is the clamshell.
At Pacific AgPak, Watsonville, Calif., the company uses polyethylene terephthalate to manufacture clamshell containers. David Baum, vice president of sales and new product development, says PETE is the same material used for water bottles, and it has some benefits that give it an edge over polystyrene packaging.

“PETE leaves no residues on the commodities. There was a scare, in fact, with polystyrene. When it rubs together, it produces a white dust that can cause contamination on the product,” Baum says.

The PETE clamshells also open without cracking, they don’t cut a consumer while handling the product, they have good clarity, are soft to the touch, are easy for workers to pack and their button-lock system is flexible, he says.

Gary Schuppener, produce supervisor for Affiliated Food Inc., Elwood, Kan., a company that supplies more than 800 grocery stores in the Midwest, says clamshells help decrease the amount of damage done to a product and reduce shrink.

“When handling open strawberries and making choices, consumers damage a large percentage of them. With clamshells, it is a win for the consumer and a win for the grocer,” Schuppener says.

Baum says that studies show that clamshells can extend the shelf life of strawberries by about seven days compared to plastic baskets. Clamshells serve as an insulator for the fruit, so during transportation when temperatures may vary, fruit is protected from freezer damage, he says, and clamshells also help ripen fruit at an even pace. He says that nearly 80 percent of all strawberries are packed in clamshells.

In New York City, clamshell packs help ease grocery shopping. Maurizio Madonia, produce manager at the single Balducci’s Food Market, says clamshells of mixed lettuce, mesculin, baby brussel sprouts and other fruits and vegetables bode well for consumers who don’t have time to trim and wash their produce.

Hen House’s King says clamshells help reduce labor at retail because they arrive at the store ready to display. However, he says there are some poorly designed clamshells on the market that break, crack or tear during transit.

John Horvers, produce manager at Adam Fairacre Farms, a single farmers market and specialty store in Kingston, N.Y., says the store shies away from packaged produce because he believes consumers should choose their own items. Horvers says the packages can hold in moisture, which makes the fruit inside decay faster.

RETURNABLE PLASTIC CONTAINERS

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., is known for its predominant use of RPCs throughout its produce departments. Mike Davis, director of quality control and technical services for IFCO Systems NA Inc., Tampa, Fla., says there are a number of benefits to using RPCs.

“First, because of the nature of the design of the containers, they are more modular than the current variety of sizes and shapes that make up a pallet of corrugated boxes so retailers are able to build a more stable pallet and get better cube utilization in the trucks. Because they are plastic, they withstand the environment of the fresh produce world where it’s very humid and damp,” Davis says.

Because of their lattice design, it takes less energy to cool products inside them, he says. RPCs also are display-ready so retailers can spend less time building displays and more time focusing on customer service. They create more room in the backroom, too, because more pallets can be stacked on top one another.

“When retailers build huge pyramid displays they have to rotate product from the bottom to the top before it goes bad,” Davis says. “With an RPC, they put the container in place and when its empty or close to empty, they pull it out and put a new one in its place.”

If you decide to use RPCs, consider the logistics of returning the container to its manufacturer.

The containers are reused until they are damaged. Then they are recycled and made into new RPCs. Davis says there are about 30 million RPCs in circulation across the United States, and while that may sound like a lot, sometimes supply cannot meet demand.

The RPC display fixtures add cost at the retail level. Retailers also need to adjust procedures and labor allocation because instead of bailing corrugated boxes they have to break down and fold RPCs and store them for pickup from the manufacturer.

Schuppener says that reusing RPCs sounds good, but returning them is somewhat unpractical.

BAGS

In the produce department, bags are everywhere. Five- and 10-pound poly bags are filled with bulk apples or potatoes, mesh bags contain citrus commodities and small plastic bags have been the predominant choice for packaged mixed salads.

Schuppener says bagged salads have been popular because they cut down on a consumer’s shopping time.

“You have a mix there. (Consumers) aren’t having to buy separate commodities,” he says. “They also provide a color break in the lettuce case where retailers have a lot of green.”

Retailers concerned about moisture being trapped inside poly bags can turn to mesh bags instead, but King says the mesh netting sometimes can damage the product. He says sometimes oranges come in orange mesh bags, but the color of the bag distorts a consumer’s view, making it hard for them to see the true color or condition of the fruit.

“Potatoes are the same way. Even fine nylon nets can cause some damage to the product and scuff the skin,” King says.

One of the latest innovations in bags is the implementation of the zipper-lock feature. Pactiv Corp., Lake Forest, Ill., offers bags with a slide instead of a zipper closure. They work well for grapes, which can be a safety liability when merchandised in bulk. King says Ziploc-bagged grapes also reduce shrink.

Schuppener says bags with a zipper-lock feature have been well received by consumers.

“There are only so many grape producers using them, but we tend to sell more grapes when we can purchase them in Ziploc bags,” Schuppener says.

In the future, gas permeable membranes that allow products to breathe should be more readily available, paving the way for more commodities to be packaged in bags. But Schuppener says bagged items ad cost to the consumer, and they might not be willing to pay for it.