What in the world is going on - and how can you apply it?

CHICAGO , October 1, 2014 () – My blog is delayed following a several week vacation early this month spent primarily in the Alsace region of France and Somerset in the UK. My wife and I passed through Paris and London as we took trains between those areas, but were mostly in smaller cities or rural and semi-rural areas. Until we got to rural Somerset, we used trains and buses to get around, a nice break from our typical car-centric life.

In addition to our sightseeing, hiking and enjoying regional history, culture and cuisine, I did get a couple of short opportunities to wander store aisles of both large and small retailers. (My wife is pretty tolerant of these detours, knowing after 34 years of marriage that I’ll find a way to take a peek).

Understand that these themes are based on my observations with a very limited sample size - the point is the process of always looking around the environment in which you find yourself, and asking ‘what stands out and what difference does it make?’

Good-looking products are shown off

If you have traveled in Europe, you’ll know that in sit-down restaurants of most price points and styles, presentation matters and is done well. That bias translates nicely to food packaging, with a high degree of care in presenting the product a significant part of the value proposition.

Just a quick example - there is a lot more variety in cured sliced meats in Europe than in the U.S., and clear, shallow draw trays with printed flexible lidstock predominate. That extends to a pack containing 4 slices of regional specialty cured meat laid out for maximum visibility.

Prominent statements about provenance and processing of the meat, but the appearance of the product was the clear focus, and helped the purchaser ensure they were getting what they expected. Adjacent products, even those much less costly per kg and in larger packs, showed similar care in presentation.

Smaller pack sizes match consumer consumption patterns

The meat in the previous example was clearly intended for use as a starter, or a special occasion snack or component of a meal. More frequent shopping and buying fresh have been part of the European model for some time; smaller household sizes are accentuating the trend to smaller pack sizes. While more packaging intensive than large packs, it would be interesting to understand if food waste is lower for packs that match shorter consumption time frames.

Making last minute meal decisions simpler

Ready meal offerings purchased on the way home have been part of the UK scene for some time. ‘High street’ stores catering to urban professionals were the quintessential example cited over the years. Big retailers have positioned small footprint outlets in high traffic areas, and a wider array of consumers are purchasing evening meals or kits before hopping on the train, bus or biking home.

Larger stores on the outskirts of cities provide convenience and even greater selection and to those commuting by car. In either format, distinct sections with clear displays make it easy to search, select, pay and leave.

A focus on quality and freshness

Restaurant menus and packaged foods very clearly marked out offerings for those with special needs or values; organic, gluten-free, GMO-free, vegetarian, local provenance and minimal processing claims were all noted in a short look. Consumers increasingly want to know more about where their food comes from and how it was handled. This proliferation of options has implications for packaging, and not only from an SKU point of view. Growing use of HPP and other reduced impact processing approaches put different demands on package performance.

Admittedly, these observations were made in an environment where the proportion of discretionary income spent on food is higher than in the U.S. However, there are plenty of examples of products that when introduced were seen as luxuries, but became standard and more affordable. It’s about managing and responding to evolving consumer expectations.

My message is simple. Remind yourself regularly that the world is bigger than the day-to-day pressures and demands you face. Find ways to experience or learn what’s going on somewhere(s) else. Don’t dismiss out of hand something you might find because ‘that doesn’t fit with how we do things’. Think instead, ‘that may not fit well with how we do things today, but what about it makes some sense and could make things better for consumers?’

Connection making and synthesis take work, but it’s stimulating work, and you never know where it can lead you or how it can change things. It’s worth keeping some part of your mental energy engaged in that process; it’s a significant source of packaging progress.

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