Texas-based NatureSweet launches three-packs for bite-sized Cherriot tomatoes

SAN ANTONIO, Texas , May 5, 2014 (press release) – NatureSweet's catchy new three-packs for its bite-sized Cherriot tomatoes may cause sticker shock -- they're selling for $2.98. Around a dozen per pack, that works out to about eight cents per tomato.

That is, unless the shopper thinks like "Anna," the hypothetical 38-year-old mother of two who is the San Antonio-based greenhouse grower's target customer. She may make up only 8 to 10 percent of households, but she's 25 percent of the purchasing power at the grocery store.

"We test everything against Anna," said Michael Joergensen, NatureSweet's marketing director. "We generally find that if something resonates with Anna, then it will be kind of aspirational for the general population."

The patented packs are just one product in a produce packaging industry that's growing faster than produce production itself. The industry, valued at $4.8 billion in 2012, is projected to increase 3.3 percent a year to $5.7 billion in 2017.

Its growth is "supported by population growth, trends toward healthier eating and the increased availability of ready-to-eat fruit marketed for convenience and as a healthy snack option," said Esther Palevsky, an analyst at Freedonia Group.

Among the top trends: peel and reseal lidding film, clear clamshells with button locks (replacing the old plastic green berry baskets), mixing items for added color appeal, pre-cut for stir-fries or grilling, packaging aimed at children, and product placement to stoke the imagination, such as muffin mix next to the blueberries and caramel dip above the apples.

There's a wealth of market research behind it all. "We don't crank out a package design," Joergensen said. "When we start looking at designs, all the way through to testing and prototypes, it's a good nine- to 12-month kind of process."

Schools including Michigan State University, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and San Jose State University have a reputation for turning out packaging engineers that work for packaging giants such as Sambrailo Packaging in Watsonville, Calif.

Sambrailo, which specializes in berries, holds patents on about 100 items. The rigid plastic clamshell, developed in 1987 for Driscoll's, revolutionized the industry.

"You could do several things. You could stack them in the retail chain and save on space; you could protect the berries so that there was less mechanical damaging to the fruit both at the pack, cooling, transportation and retail level," said Jim Scattini, Sambrailo's vice president of sales and marketing.

While more expensive, retailers made up for the price with less loss from damaged fruit. Consumers liked it, too. For one thing, they could see the fruit.

There are "green" producers and retailers who won't buy plastic packaging -- Sanbrailo's got a line of compostable sugar-cane fiber based packaging for them. But the products are recyclable, and waste and over-packaging arguments don't seem to have hurt sales.

"The numbers bear out that when something is in a rigid plastic container, it outsells something that's a loose commodity," Scattini said. "So you've got the vocal concerns and then you've got the numbers. So now you see the paradox."

Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations for the Produce Marketing Association, said the marketing aspect is "even bigger than the technology."

"When you have packaging, you have marketing real estate, if you will," she said.

Recipes and serving suggestions are big, as is nutrition information. PMA currently has a program that allows members to use Sesame Street characters royalty-free.

"The goal is to get kids 3 to 5 and their millennial families eating more produce so that we can build consumers for life," Means said.

It's marketing at the store level, and the industry knows it's got to move beyond the health message. People know fruits and vegetables are good for them, but consumption hasn't been rising. Means said the industry is moving toward creativity and convenience.

Hence strategies like crepes and shortcakes next to strawberries, packages of broccoli macaroni and cheese, guacamole seasoning next to the avocadoes and vegetable mixes for the wok.

"Some people, during the week, they don't want to mess with anything," she said. "Come the weekend, they feel like cooking ... during the week, make it fast, make it easy and make it something my kids will like."

Convenience also means having a presence at convenience stores, dollar stores and drugstores. Walgreens is currently testing produce in Chicago.

"Whether it's convenience or a mobility issue, there are a lot of reasons people are choosing different outlets," Means said. "Produce marketers are sending their product wherever consumers want to buy it."

NatureSweet is one of a growing number of producers that see their brand name as key to the marketing.

Names such as Sunkist, Dole and Chiquita have long been around, but for the most part, the produce department has been an anonymous assortment of products.

"In produce, it's kind of an unspoken truth that consumers don't always know what they're going to get," NatureSweet's Joergensen said. "They go in and they pick it up and they squeeze it. They sniff it. They're trying to get a feel for it ... They'll try to pop the label and sneak one because they're just kind of hoping that it's good. We think consumers shouldn't have to hope."

The name also gives consumers a place to go for some on-the-go research.

Recipes are the most visited section of the NatureSweet website, and the company recently redesigned and re-launched its site for ease of use.

"What Anna's doing now, she's not searching from home and then going to the store. She's searching in the store," Joergensen said.

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