Packaged fruit – will the trend continue?

20th May 2021 | Eativity editors

When COVID-19 first emerged on Australian shores, the risk of transmitting the virus via fresh produce was quickly disproven. Even with this early assurance and more than 12 months of evidence to support it, recent Australian consumer research by Nielsen Homescan shows that 46 percent of surveyed main grocery buyers agreed that “packaged to minimise the spread of coronavirus” had become more important to them when they were choosing fresh produce compared to before the start of the pandemic.

In the first three months of 2020, when there was considerable uncertainty regarding the transmission of COVID-19, Aussie consumers increased their purchase volume of pre-packed apples from major supermarkets by more than 16 percent compared to 2019.

Unlike overseas markets, the majority of apples sold in Australia are loose.

Can pre-pack capture value?

Australian consumers are increasingly familiar with pre-packs targeting school lunch boxes.

“Apples and pears are one of the few fresh produce categories that have been able to deliver consistent size and quality year-round to capitalise on the demand for fruit that can fit in a school lunch box,” says Apple and Pear Australia Limited Regional Manager North & South Americas and Head of Group Brands, Craig Chester.

“A punnet of size 90s [apples are sized from 48 to 116 – the higher the number, the smaller the apple] delivers value to this consumer segment and increases the return for fruit that would have gone to lower-return options such as juice.”

Australian consumers are less familiar with pre-packs positioned at the premium end of the consumer market. Pre-packs targeting the traditional middle ground compete for existing sales volumes – and are also vulnerable to consumers’ social and environmental concerns.

“Pre-packing is an added cost that ultimately needs to be recovered from the consumer, and is justified by adding value, such as improved convenience or premiumisation,” says fresh produce specialist Tristan Kitchener. “Australian consumers are generally more price-sensitive and have long been comfortable purchasing quality loose fruit.”

The perceived safety of packaged fruit has driven sales in the past year.

Sustainability vs. convenience

Research continues to show that Australian consumers are increasingly sensitive to unnecessary and excessive packaging and food waste. However, retail data reports consumers steadily increasing their purchasing of pre-packed fruit for the past three to four years. It wouldn’t be the first time that consumers’ stated intentions didn’t match their purchasing practices – but according to Chester it’s not that simple.

“There appears to be a significant number of consumers who want the convenience of pre-packed apples and pears – but they’re looking for social permission,” he says. “COVID-19 gave this permission, even after the transmission fears were dispelled.”

Woolworths announced plans to reduce plastic packaging across a range of fruit and veg last year.

Lessons for industry

Loose apples and pears represent at least 80 percent of Australian apple and pear sales, however in the UK and Europe it’s the reverse, with pre-packed fruit making up at least 80 percent of retail sales and seen by consumers as a premium to the loose product.

It’s these overseas markets that are also leading the way with initiatives targeting single-use plastics, which includes many of the existing, cheaper packaging options in use in Australia. However, the major Australian retailers are now taking a similar direction.

Kitchener says retailers are not making consumer-facing eco-friendly claims just for the sake of it: “They’re mining their extensive data-insights collateral to solve the emerging pain-points of their consumers, and at the same demonstrating that they’re good corporate citizens,” he says. “Sustainability, food waste, environmentally friendly and ethical sourcing are now all on-trend in the mainstream market.”

No More Plastic Packaging makes produce trays from sugarcane pulp waste.

The whole package

Overseas markets have the scale and the motivation to drive packaging innovation. Many Australian producers aren’t waiting around for these developments to happen here.

“We’re seeing considerable interest and investment in packaging technologies that can work with recycled and compostable inputs,” Kitchen says.

However, Chester says it’s not as simple as retrofitting an existing packing line: “This year, we have seen more and more cardboard punnets replacing the traditional plastic punnets,” he says. “Consumers may see it as a positive and logical step without appreciating the significant investment and changes that are required.”

While solutions for domestic and export markets need to be tailored to meet consumers’ needs, ultimately, consumers expect incremental improvements over time – but not necessarily the complete removal of packaging that provides many benefits.

“That means considered and proportionate actions to reduce, reuse, recycle and remove packaging,” Kitchener says. “In time, this will extend to the use of regenerative technologies, such as plant-based ingredients and materials that are financially viable, supported by reassurance of functional performance and their sustainability and ethical status [eg, B Corp, Sustainable Basket Metric].” It’s the total package that counts!”