Retail View: 100% biodegradable containers driven by consumer demand
Berkeley Bowl, a two-store independent in California, thrives in the same progressive city that shares its name. As such, it has been doing great business for decades offering natural foods, organic produce, bulk grains and nuts, and now, environmentally friendly packaging.
Produce buyer Nick Christopher said the 100 percent biodegradable produce packaging pioneered by Watsonville, CA-based Sambrailo Packaging is a big hit with his customers. Currently, Berkeley Bowl is using the packaging on a handful of organic produce items — such as strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes — but Christopher would like to see its use expanded to both organic and conventional produce items. He said it is a perfect fit for organic produce as those customers have already proven that they are motivated by other factors besides price.
Berkeley Bowl has twin produce departments — conventional and organic — which sit side-by-side and both are larger and do far more daily business than the average, large-scale supermarket produce department. Christopher said the move to ReadyCycle packaging was in direct response to customer requests. It first began experimenting with the packaging on organic strawberries by merchandising traditional clamshells next to the cardboard containers.
“ReadyCycle outsold the clamshells four to one,” Christopher said, noting that there was no price differential in the two packs.
The retailer is now asking its suppliers to use ReadyCycle when they can. The use has expanded to other berries as well as several tomato products, with packers of other items also giving the packaging a try.
Robert Lichtenberg, director of purchasing for Earl’s Organic Produce, which is on the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, said there is definitely a trend in the organic retail sector to get rid of plastic and use “more green” materials. He said many retailers that he sells would buy produce packaged in such a manner if they could. Echoing the sentiments of Christopher, who is a customer of Earl’s, Lichtenberg said it is consumers driving this trend.
That is good news to Sara Lozano, marketing manager for Sambrailo Packaging. She said that the container manufacturer introduced the ReadyCycle option to grower-packers four years ago.
“We started out with a handful of organic growers, but it is definitely catching on,” she said.
In developing the option, Sambrailo wanted to go beyond the concept of creating packaging that was 100 percent recyclable. “That’s great but we knew that the packaging would not always be recycled,” Lozano said. “We knew some of these packages would end up in landfills and we wanted them to be biodegradable.”
The packaging option contains no wax, no plastic and no label. It is made from paperboard, which will biodegrade.
Lozano said growers of one-pound organic strawberries were the first users and that is still the company’s top ReadyCycle seller. Grower-packers of other items have started ordering it and Sambrailo is happy to work with any packer that wants a specific size container. The company has just recently developed a two-count organic artichoke container for Ocean Mist Farms.
The packaging is significantly more expensive than the traditional non-biodegradable, plastic clamshell that item is meant to replace. Lozano said the cost can be two to three times more. Consequently, she said sales do need to be driven by consumers as few grower-shippers will voluntarily increase their costs unless there is a buyer willing to pay for those extra expenditures. She added that dynamic is occurring. “Consumers are demanding, retailers are complying and growers are supplying,” She said.
In fact, Lozano listed several different retailers across the country that have contacted Sambrailo looking for packers who are using the ReadyCycle container. Currently, she said the sales of the product are progressing very well.
“We are in a great place,” she said in early January. “We are still penetrating the market and right now we are gearing up for orders that we have in California for this spring. We would love to have more orders to fill, and we are ready to ramp up.”
While Sambrailo currently has the marketplace to itself, Lozano said it has no illusion that will always be the case. “We know there are other manufacturers waiting for large grower-shippers to make big commitments before they jump in,” Lozano said. “Actually, we find it quite flattering. Our competitors tell us they are getting inquiries from customers and consumers asking if they make the ReadyCycle container — we are the standard.”