Will supermarkets give up their packaging advantage?

The appeal of supermarkets rests on a range of qualities, with the top three being price, range and convenience. But we should not underestimate the importance that packaging now plays in the attractions of modern supermarket food retailing.

The price premium placed on so many products in a typical basket depends so much on the packaging; when it comes to food, that most of us absolutely do judge the book by its cover. How many of you with children know that they will eat what you cook for them but really, they crave crisps, pot noodle, sweets and a whole host of processed foods that have reached a level of refinement that common sense dictates that they are the source of most allergies, not the ingredients in their purest form.

Efficient supply chains run on packaging

And so it is with packaging. Packaging has reached such a level of sophistication over 100 years that it has elevated some products to the status of religious icons. And yet what so often lies behind the pack is heavily processed food with no nutritional value but packed with salt, sugar and fat, which has contributed to continued growth in diet-related diseases such as obesity.

It is not my purpose in this article to have a go at the food industry but I do feel that the latest initiatives by supermarkets and consumer goods manufacturers to reduce food packaging, whilst they are welcome, are really only a PR exercise by the Corporate & Social Responsibility department. Actually removing significant quantities of packaging from the supply chain will be impossible if supermarkets expect to retain their current status in our hearts and our food cupboards.

Just one bad apple

Even the smallest changes can have dire consequences; for instance, there is talk of removing the bags from cauliflowers or the plastic wrap from cabbages, but have you even see what one bad vegetable does to all the vegetables around it? You already know, when one bad orange in a net sets the rest off, leaving you cursing the supermarket that supplied it.

Or fizzy water? Will this industry, that generates such high profits from ‘added-value’ products – with fruit, low sugar, low sodium, spring, active minerals, added vitamins – really give up the one thing that gives their products 50% or more of their appeal, the actual bottle.

For most, food and its packaging are virtually indivisible

Would you be happy to dispense your tomato ketchup or mayonnaise into a jam jar? I mean, I would, but not sure how far down that track I would want to go before I took the obvious next step and made my own sauces. Appealing as this may all be for the enlightened, guilt-ridden, sanctimonious Chris Fields out there, it will probably not work for the masses for whom food and its packaging are virtually indivisible.

For now, refilling counters cannot really be more than a niche retail format, and may stay that way unless the burden of change is forced on the supermarkets or consumer packaged goods companies by law. With diesel, petrol, coal and wet wood now on the extinction list through regulation, can we one day add packaging?

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