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ATLANTA -- The packaging of produce has been elevated to an art form, according to a panel of experts who addressed the subject during a workshop session held here during the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit convention.

It was not very long ago that produce packaging consisted of a bag or a clamshell picked for its size and shape, and not much else. But those days are gone -- at least for the sophisticated marketer.

Today designing a produce pack is a research-driven activity for the savvy marketer. The "Wow Factor in Produce Packaging" was the title of the workshop, which explored consumer attitudes about produce packaging as well as many tips that firms should consider.

Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, who is based in East Wenatchee, WA, reported on a consumer survey his organization conducted for PMA that explored consumer thoughts about packaging.

Interviewing 500 consumers on-line and a similar number in person in supermarket produce departments, Mr. Lutz painted a picture of a consumer that is still leery of the produce that is in a package, probably remembering bygone days when produce packaging typically meant a value buy of less than premium product, the consumer is suspicious that the package is used to hide inferior quality.

Mr. Lutz said that a typical consumer doesn't really know the difference between value packaging and value-added packaging.

When they are confronted with produce in a package, a consumer often is looking for information that just isn't there. Mr. Lutz said they want sell-by date information, simple recipes and nutrition data. Often that is missing from typical produce packs.

In addition, 57 percent of consumers want their packaged produce in environmentally friendly packaging, although they can't define just what that is. They also are looking for a smaller unit size since their perception is that packaged produce typically comes in volumes too great for smaller families.

When they do buy packaged produce, consumers are motivated by convenience, the perception that packaged product is fresher and point of origin.

One interesting -- if not telling -- fact garnered from the research is that consumers buy far more packaged produce than they think. In the survey, consumers estimated that about 15 percent of what they buy comes packaged. In reality, 40 percent of all produce bought comes in a package of one kind or another.

Lisa Cork, who has had more than 20 years of experience working with produce companies on packaging their products, was next to the podium to discuss common mistakes produce companies make in designing their packages.

Ms. Cork began in the produce industry by helping Apio Inc. develop its "Eat Smart" brand and she has continued to work with other firms from her current New Zealand-based company, Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd.

Ms. Cork said that packaging can be a tremendous help in selling product, but often it is misused by produce-industry vendors. She said that most produce companies tend to put their own brand names in big letters and "talk about what the product is rather than what it does for you."

She said that produce firms should be looking at the package from a consumer's point of view, not a grower's point of view.

Using examples of packaged product that she saw on the PMA expo floor the previous day, Ms. Cork said missed opportunities might be the common thread for most of them.

For example, she said that if a company is selling a value-added pack of shucked sweet corn, it should be advertising that fact on the package. A consumer knows it is sweet corn, she said, but what they may not know is that the packager has gotten rid of those undesirable silk threads, and that is a selling point that should be emphasized.

She said that the use of stickers on produce is another lost opportunity. Most grower-shippers will put a brand name or a variety rather than the benefits of that piece of fruit or a description that gives the consumer information. For example, let the consumer know that Cara Cara citrus is a pink Navel. Important information can drive sales, she said.

Ms. Cork said that packaging matters and can increase sales incrementally, which should be the goal of all marketers. "In the Western world, our stomachs are full," she said. "We are in the substitution game."

The competition is what is being sold in the center store, and she advised the produce industry to take a lesson from the packaging that branded products utilize. They offer the benefits of consumption more often than not.

Ms. Cork offered several ideas to help produce marketers create better packaging: have your packaging talk to someone and say something about the benefit of the product; know food trends and use them such as the current desire to increase "digestive health"; give your brand a consumer-friendly name; and be "cheeky," which in her vernacular means fun. Produce screams out for fun names and promotional ideas, she said.

Following her presentation, a panel of produce packaging experts was quizzed by Mr. Lutz as to their experiences in developing packaging that works. He picked the three companies - Crunch Pak, Ready Pac Produce and Mann Packing - because each is known for introducing top-flight produce packaging and having great success with new product introductions.

Each of the three speakers demonstrated the care, research and thought that goes into developing a successful produce pack.

Tony Freytag of Crunch Pak said that creating a pack with "drive-by appeal" is very important since the busy shopper moves quickly through the produce department.

For its dipper packs, for example, Crunch Pak uses a colorful graphic showing an apple being dipped in caramel to create a great visual. Of course, the Crunch Pak features sliced apples and the company also uses that visual on the package to give instant identification.

But he also said that the package has to be crystal clear because the main selling point is the product itself, and Crunch Pak wants to make sure that the item is very visible.

Barbara Dan has helped Ready Pac bring many different items to the market, including its popular protein-based salads and its new fresh fruit parfaits. With a background in consumer products, she said that produce packaging is doubly important "because we don't have a lot of money for advertising and marketing."

A package has to create awareness, generate traffic and speak for itself, said Ms. Dan, and Ready Pac determines the top selling features of the product and makes sure those attributes get top billing.

For example, the firm's single-serve salads come with the calorie count prominently displayed on the front, which is very important to many customers. She reiterated that it is very important to show off the product and not to use too much color or overdo the packaging graphics.

Lorri Koster of Mann Packing was also on the dais to discuss her firm's many items, such as its steam-in-the-bag broccoli. For that item, the cooking method was prominently displayed. For other products, usage ideas are offered as a way to generate sales, she said.

The company has also used packaging to call attention to the firm as a family-owned organization or to tout its sustainable growing methods.

Ms. Koster said that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, since the "wow" factor tends to change from item to item and from year to year, but Mann takes great care to design packaging that fits the message it wants to sell.

She also reminded produce packagers to use the upper right hand space for use-by date information. This standardized placement is great for consumers, though she lamented the use of "prime real estate" for the message.