Trade Resources Policy & Opinion We All Need Food Packaging

We All Need Food Packaging

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We all need to eat – and that means we all need food packaging, with most of us handling some form of food pack several times every day. Whether it’s the cereal box at breakfast, the sandwich packet at lunch, perhaps a snack in the afternoon, shopping and cooking dinner in the evening, you would be hard-pressed to find a day where you hadn’t used food packaging.

While many consumers are unlikely to think about the pack, for those in the supply chain the challenges of creating food packaging are numerous. From selling the product in the retail environment to keeping it safe and fresh for the consumer, controlling portion sizes to communicating both the brand values and nutritional information, food packs perform a wide range of often difficult functions.

Packaging News teamed up with Essentra Packaging to bring together a group of food packaging technologists, researchers and other experts at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising to discuss the challenges facing the food packaging supply chain.

The changing retail environment

Standout on supermarket shelves is arguably the biggest challenge for any brand’s packaging; after all, it is what drives sales. But, warns research agency Marketing Sciences’ research director Chris Peach, it’s impossible to generalise when it comes to making rules to achieve standout. “A common question we are asked is what we can do to create standout; and the simple answer is that there is no one answer,” he says.

“It’s not just about impact – it’s about being able to understand the product proposition in a simple way, because it has to sell itself in a fraction of a second. Increasingly we see shoppers who have far too much to do, there’s so much to take in at a grocery store, and once they do see a product it needs to communicate very quickly.”

Debbie Parry, own-brand packaging technologist at Sainsbury’s, says that the main challenges for the supermarket in terms of standout are making sure the packs deliver the Sainsbury’s brand experience and that they are as easily navigable as possible. “The branding piece starts well beyond the store – we work very hard on our colours, on our branding from the minute you drive into our car park. Then once you’re in store, the challenge is making ranges consistent, but equally making the ranges easy to shop so the customer can find what they’re looking for when they’re standing in front of the fixture.”

Part of the equation, says David Tonkin, group packaging development manager at 2 Sisters Food Group, has to do with the debate around the use of retail-ready packaging in the retail environment, which can drive standout if used well but kill it if used badly, as it will cover, to a greater or lesser extent, the primary pack.

Yet RRP’s role as we understand it currently becomes redundant in the online environment. While in 2014 online retail currently accounts for just  £7.7bn, or 4.4%, of the £174.5bn grocery market, according to figures from IGD, the size of the online channel is forecast to double by 2018 compared to growth of around a fifth in the overall grocery market. “The whole debate about shelf space and how much you’re given as a brand changes entirely on the internet because space is whatever you want it to be,” says Tonkin.

Stefan Casey, business innovation manager at The Retail Institute – which was formerly the Faraday Centre for Retail Excellence – says: “That’s true, but the websites for most of the online retailers are still treated like they’re a shelving unit. The real question online is whether you have a product in a box or do you have an image of the product itself?”

Foodservice Packaging Association director Martin Kersh suggests that often it is the brand name and logo rather than either the product or pack shots that actually sell the product online. He adds that the crucial element in online retail, though, will be the in-home experience of the product. “What about the impact when you take it out of the box when you’re unpacking it at home and all the things that packaging gives you like reassurance and information – so the shelf impact is only one half of the visibility argument.”

Kevin Vyse, packaging and innovation technologist at Marks & Spencer Food, argues that one of the outcomes will be a trend towards “showrooming”, which has been pioneered most famously by Apple’s stores but is appearing in some areas of food retail. “Brands like Fauchon in France, which is a food shop but feels like a cosmetics store, are majoring on the experience of the brand. So you go in the store, you touch and feel the products but then you probably still order them online; but you’ve imbibed the brand.”

Gill Wood, packaging and product development manager at organic food brand Daylesford, which sells through Ocado as well as its own stores, says that a key factor is making sure that packaging can withstand the distribution chain used by the online retailer. “We haven’t done a bespoke design for Ocado – everything is designed primarily for our own stores – but it’s more functionality we have to think about, making sure it travels through the Ocado system. We put everything through travel tests through Ocado.”


Much has been made of the importance of openability, inclusive design and the ageing population in recent years. Now the focus, Casey says, is falling on resealability as the next frontier in keeping food fresh for as long as possible.

But, says Sainsbury’s Parry, this is a challenging area from a food safety perspective. “If you take a bacon or a ham pack, for instance, you have fresh meat but once you break the [MAP] gas layer then the shelf life begins to dwindle. Yet customers still often expect it to last the time that is printed on the pack and it won’t because the customer can’t reseal it properly.”

Martin Kersh says that in terms of functionality, anything that extends the shelf life of food and keeps it fresh for longer is a “wonderful development”.

“Food waste is the great enemy and the industry should focus on it. Anything we can do that extends shelf life by even a day is a good thing.” He cites the pads in fruit packaging that extends its life, but adds: “The thing is that consumers probably don’t even know it’s there and we’re not all that good at communicating it.”

Jill Wood adds: “I think it’s important for the packaging to answer some of those points because it means that we’re not then just adding more preservatives into the product itself. Food is meant to be perishable to a certain extent and it’s important to keep the quality.”

David Tonkin highlights another area for innovation around making packaging deliver food that tastes its very best or that helps consumers to prepare food that tastes as good as it can. “The question is how to make packaging a functional cooking aid,” he says. “It’s issues like texture, flavour, moisture, crispness, all those cues that you see on the imagery on the pack – but then how is it actually delivered?”

Sainsburys’ Parry points to the semi-ready meal concept that has appeared in recent years in both own-brand and branded products, with brands like the Saucy Fish Co which integrates a sauce element alongside vacuum-packed fish. “Our view is that customers can be frightened of fish and chicken – they don’t necessarily know how to cook it or what to do with it. What these packs do is to say ‘here you are, let’s get you eating fish again, and here’s how to do it.’ It’s about education.”

Chris Peach sounds a note of caution, though, explaining that while consumers may say they like functionality such as resealability; but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a purchase. And, he says, the industry is missing a trick by focusing on the feature and not the benefits. “What does resealability mean to a consumer? It means that at some point you’re going to use all of the product and not throw away 10% of it – that’s a value for money story.”

Effective communication to the consumer is, as ever, key to the debate and this extends to how consumers view packaging once it has been used. Vyse underlines that used packaging should not be termed as waste but should instead be promoted more than it is now as a material source, an ore. “It’s an asset and we need to get the young people entering the consumer market that this is a resource that needs looking after,” he says.

The role of technology

While online shopping is one area where technology is transforming retail and the packs of the products sold through it, it is not the only area of new technology impacting packaging. Quick response (QR) codes have become a regular sight on packaging in recent years, offering a quick link for smartphone users to get more information about a product; while augmented reality (AR), has made some inroads into making packs more engaging to consumers through technologies such as Blippar.

The Retail Institute’s Casey argues, though, that there is much more to come in the link between our packaging and what has become everyday technology. “Because the room on the pack is so precious, there’s not much space to put information there. The wine industry is good at this – often a QR code will take you to learn more about the product, its provenance and so on. But so far these technologies are often used as a gimmick, as a voucher or whatever, and it’s not being used to its full potential, for instance to give instructions, alert about allergens and so on.”

He adds that a major hurdle to the uptake of these types of technologies in food packaging is the sheer number of smartphone apps on offer – anecdotally more than 70 are on the market. He points to the financial sector, where the banks have worked together to develop a single payment app. “They’re collaborating to make it easier for the customer so they can adopt the technology.”

Marketing Sciences’ Peach reports that his company’s research suggests that around 20% of the UK population has, at some point, scanned a QR code. The biggest hurdle to getting people to do it, he says, is a level of cynicism about what they are going to get out of it. “If it’s not worth my time in finding an app, downloading it, scanning the pack, then it’s not going to work,” says Peach.

But what of the future? David Tonkin highlights conceptual work that is happening in the industry that would allow food packs to, for instance, communicate with kitchen appliances in the much-discussed ‘internet of things’. It may seem a way off but such technologies are under development and could well help both the aging population and the young to eat a balanced diet in the future. And it’s not necessarily so far-fetched.

As he says: “On one hand, you have the population that is going into retirement now and of course they are becoming less able to open packs, to see packs; and at the other end of the spectrum you have the younger generation with all their technology who will grow up and might not even need to learn to drive. What does packaging look like in that world?”

The personal touch

A part of the puzzle of the connected world is both the possibility and the expectation that products, including food products, will be personal. Sainsbury’s Parry highlights that developing a consumer’s sense that a mass-produced product has been created especially for them is a key challenge.

One aspect of this is the growing digital print market which is well-established but has become headline news in recent years with the notable success of Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign.

M&S’s Vyse says: “I think that we as retailers are holding out a lot of hope for digital printing and I’m amazed that digital is as far behind as it really is. But sometime soon, someone will take the risk and say they can make digital print match litho. And once they’ve done that it will run away because we’ll be able to get short, medium and long runs of print from digital, with the economies of scale for regional variations and so on.”

Digital print for mass customisation of packs is already a reality, albeit in isolated cases; but online retail presents new opportunities for digital to really personalise grocery shopping. Some food manufacturers have even done the maths on whether to install digital printing presses in their own production facilities.

Yet there is another aspect to the personal touch and that is the growing desire for food that is made close to home. In recent years concepts and buzzwords such as provenance, food miles, street food, authenticity and farmers’ markets have come to the fore.

And this is increasingly reflected in packaging where, for instance, flexible plastic packs are being made to resemble paper bags that tie in with the homespun feel that many consumers are seeking.

Casey adds: “It’s completely on-trend since the recession with products that play on old-fashioned cues – there are clear sensory cues that make you feel that this type of product is better quality.”

As Marketing Sciences’ Peach puts it: “The key thing is that reality counts for nothing and perception counts for everything. What we try to do is to change perceptions among consumers.”

Safe food supply and recalls

In the wake of the horse meat scandal last year, safety and security in the supply chain is right at the top of the agenda for the food industry. Indeed, a Food Crime Unit has been set up to monitor and police the safety of food. The Foodservice Packaging Association is leading the industry’s response to this by pushing for what it sees as illegal packaging to be covered by the new organisation.

Kersh explains that the issue is around packaging that is coming into the European Union that is either not compliant with European food safety standards or simply doesn’t have the necessary paperwork to prove it is compliant. “The question here is public safety. It’s incredibly important, of course. But it’s also about having a level playing field for the companies operating in the EU who do go to great lengths to comply with safety issues,” he says.

The journey towards full traceability for all the materials in any piece of food packaging may not be a short one; but it could become necessary. One standout recent example was the scare over mineral oils in cartonboard packs, which translated into headlines suggesting cereal packs were toxic, even though the paper industry argued extensively that the risk to public health and the levels of mineral oils being detected in the packaging were tiny.

Food packaging has an exciting future but perhaps not an easy one. With challenges around supply chains, the proliferation of retail channels, its relationship with consumer technology plus the need to communicate brand and nutritional information, both producers and specifiers of food packs will have their work cut out in the years to come. But it will be worth the effort – we all need to eat, after all.

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