In these days when every produce item firmly grips its supermarket ad and shelf space, California's $800 million strawberry industry looks to strong consumer draw as it considers new packaging designs.

In an average season, the industry markets 1.4 billion pounds, or more than 80 percent of the nation's fresh and frozen strawberries.

At a recent meeting of the California Strawberry Commission in Rancho Mirage, Tim Hallows, merchandising director for the marketing order, said he is optimistic consumer demand for strawberries will remain high.

“A typical supermarket produce department carries an average of 400 to 500 items. There is more pressure than ever before from competitive produce items for ad space and retail display allocation. Now more than ever, produce departments are required to focus on profitability and advertising draw,” he said.

“Through category management, we've shown that strawberries can be a very profitable commodity, and with a 94 percent user base nationally, they are always a strong consumer draw.”

Category management data applied a yardstick for packaging. Data gathered over a period of four years traces the evolution of the clear plastic, clamshell consumer pack. The commission and specialists at the University of California, Davis, will be working next year testing packaging designs conforming to a new tray “footprint” measuring 40 by 60 centimeters, or roughly 16 by 24 inches.

One pound clamshell

Strawberry packaging has changed over the years, and by 1996 retailers were favoring the one pound clamshell container. Claiming 81 percent of the category's sales, it is considered today the anchor for most consumer needs.

But the growth pattern of the package has flattened as consumers have been drawn to other designs, and those will be considered as the strawberry industry searches for greater efficiencies.

In a retail survey done this past summer, the commission learned that retailers use three or four different packages for strawberries, ranging from pints to half-trays. Nearly a third of those responding have tested a four-pound clamshell intended for family use. Virtually all respondents said they would be adding a four-pound container to their packaging assortment next year.

The commission also learned that consumer preference in packaging varies by season. In the spring, the smaller sizes are more popular because of regional preferences and prices, while the larger containers are used more in the peak production and summer months.

Fritz Koontz, chairman of the commission's task force on packaging, said, “As the industry makes a shift into the new footprint, the design must be economically viable for growers, provide the best quality to the consumer, and provide the greatest flexibility for the retail and food service community.”

Container designs will have to conform to the need for strawberries to be forced-air cooled for critical quality preservation before and during shipment. Containers also have to be suited to efficient stacking and palletization.

Although the industry has an ambitious task ahead in developing new packaging, it anticipates direct benefits such as reduced labor by retailers and added convenience for consumers.

Disney collaboration

In other commission strategies, the success of its food service collaboration with Disney World this year will be continued next year with comprehensive training of chefs with customized recipes using strawberries. The connection with Disney is considered a model for future food service promotions.

The commission will also continue participation in the USDA school lunch program.

Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Hong Kong are targets for the commission's 2002 export push to sell more fresh and frozen strawberries.

Meanwhile, David Riggs has resigned his post as the commission's chief executive after nearly a quarter-century of service. He plans to be a consultant for special projects for strawberries and other crops.

Riggs came to the California Strawberry Advisory Board, the commission's predecessor, as merchandising director in 1977 and became general manager in 1980.

Among commission accomplishments during Riggs' watch was having a crisis team in place when strawberries were involved in two food-safety scares, cyclospora in 1996 and hepatitis A the following year. Swift response to nationwide concerns limited damage to the industry and kept it stable.

Bill Moncovich, Watsonville shipper and commission chairman, in noting Riggs' contributions, said, “He has shown the ability to develop effective programs in marketing, agricultural research, regulatory affairs, and crisis communications and has represented the industry effectively in the public policy arena.”

e-mail: dbryant@primediabusiness.com