It’s no secret that many people have no time to cook. Now an increasing number say they have no time to eat – or at least no time for a sit-down meal. How are manufacturers responding to the boom in demand for portable, convenient and tasty foods? Bernice Hurst found out.

Packaging and new product development are the twin paths to profit for food manufacturers. While new flavours and ingredients are being tried and tested in the lab, kitchen and focus groups, new pack designs for existing winners can keep shelf space warmed up until you get there.

Changing the size and shape of the pack on an already successful product can sometimes revitalise it, attracting new consumers whose eye may not have been caught previously. And if that new package is convenient and portable then it can be even more attractive.

Ready-to-serve the way forward for soup…

Campbell Soup Company is one organisation demonstratively learning that lesson. Having made its name with condensed soups, it has now moved more towards ready-to-serve varieties. Jeremy Fingerman, president of the US Soup Division, told USA

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Today that its shipments of ready-to-serve soups increased 8% during 2003 while condensed soups decreased by 6%.

…but not for coffee

Swiss giant Nestlé’s experiment with the ultimate in portable packaging, a self-heating can for its instant coffee, did not survive its 2002 trial. Although UK commercial project manager Graham White announced his confidence at the time, the product has not achieved nationwide distribution and was quietly dropped when the “limited edition” trial ended. Neither press office or public relations handlers were willing to make any comment on the product’s future.

The downside is that, while packaging for portability undoubtedly meets consumers’ demands for convenience and the ability to eat anything anytime anywhere, it can, arguably, contribute to current trends towards overeating and obesity. Encouraging snacking and eating on the hoof while supplying portion sizes which are larger than can be justified as snacks is one more factor of which consumers need to be aware when deciding what to buy and eat.

Clearer labelling essential

Growing demand for one-handed eating and “single” portions packs is having an impact on new proposals for nutritional information on labels. Much confusion has been caused when trying to convert total contents into single portions. A much clearer understanding of portion versus pack size is being loudly demanded.

There is an old joke about plastics, in which a young man is advised that they are the way to make his fortune in business. Since then, tetrapaks, ring pull cans and sipping lids have made life on the move ever easier. Cartons that keep food fresh longer and can be used to serve food as well as to store it are on the increase. Microwaveable tubs and bowls of assorted shapes and sizes are used increasingly for both snacks and ready meals. Containers that supply both breakfast cereal and milk but keep them separate until required are distributed through convenience stores and locations where people pause briefly in transit just to grab something to eat before moving ever onwards. Squeezy tubes and grippable bottles add even more opportunity to eat or drink without pause.

Barry Sands, brand manager for Kraft’s Handi-Snacks, was reported in Brandweek as saying that their planned revamp is “an opportunity to transform Handi-Snacks from simply a brand” to a powerful packaging platform. Both convenience and portion control issues will be addressed, with five sticks or crackers alongside each section of cheese dip.

More haste, fewer spoons

Valerie Skala, food product analyst at market researchers Information Resources, explained to the New York Times that sales of drinking yoghurt have risen sharply. “Because you don’t need a spoon, people are having it at times that they wouldn’t have had yoghurt before.”

Following its invention of fastfood, the US is still the place where demand for portability is most extreme. Few cars nowadays do not include cupholders as standard equipment. In the UK, however, the media had a flurry of reporting on traffic police who cracked down on motorists eating while driving, even when stopped at a traffic light. Although the publicity has died down, Thames Valley Police (TVP) say that their vigilance has not. While arrests are discretionary, any car seen being driven erratically can be stopped and charges of driving without care and attention or careless driving imposed. There are no current proposals for a law similar to that prohibiting the use of handheld mobile telephones but TVP emphasises that drivers whose concentration wanders because they are munching may still be pulled over and expected to take the consequences.

Eating while driving – unsafe, but commonplace

Temptation is rife, however, and difficult to resist. Yoghurt and peanut butter come in squeezable plastic tubes, bite-sized cookies and candy in resealable cups and bags, snacks and dips in portion packs. Hot food and drink are available in microwaveable, grippable containers with sipper lids.

David Podeschi, senior vice president for merchandising at 7-Eleven, which has some 24,000 convenience stores around the world, told the New York Times, “anything that comes in a grippable container or pops in your mouth flies off the shelf.” Most c-stores now have self-service microwaves to ensure that drivers can heat purchases for immediate consumption as they drive off.

Do we use those resealable packs – or do we just scoff the lot?

Yet portability is another area where size matters. The New York Times quoted one consumer who likes his candy in miniature because he can toss it in his mouth for a quick energy lift but also because he’s watching his weight. Whether he, or others, eat less if pieces are small is debatable; there is considerable evidence that it is pack size that really counts. Once open, re-sealable or not, people are far more inclined to consume a whole pack than to eat a few small pieces of whatever and save the rest for later.

While size may matter, apparently price does not. Comparisons of specific products in varying pack types can prove enlightening with the differential frequently being a multiple of the base price. Convenience undoubtedly costs but premium prices are calmly and willingly swallowed by an ever growing number of cash-rich, time-poor consumers.

Convenience can, of course, satisfy many different criteria. Portability is certainly important but, depending on the product, so too is being seen as part of a healthy, nutritional, balanced and politically correct diet. 

Nutrition is a key sales point with conveniently portable packages. The rapid rise of the breakfast bar, for example, or drinkable yoghurt, is largely attributed to the ease with which nutrients can be consumed. As American food retail expert Phil Lempert told USA Today, “In 2004 it has to be healthy. It’s not just about having a great package. It’s what you put in the package.”

Datamonitor’s 2003 report, Health on the Go, emphasised the dearth of nutritional snacks readily available and identified a gap in the market just waiting to be filled.