In the land of the free, shopping around for a good deal can sometimes leave creative pack design stuck firmly on the shelf. Des King reports on what it takes to capture US consumer attention

For a country that nurtures a passion for the latest and the new, there is a remarkable uniformity in US stores when it comes to product presentation.

On supermarket shelves, where the principal difference between competing goods is as often as not just the manufacturer’s name, structure and graphics demonstrably play second fiddle to the price tag.

In the UK the weekly shop is always open to the suggestion of a little harmless adventure but in the US a trip to the store in downtown Mobile or Manhattan is little more than an exercise in picking up commodities.

A pretty face might catch the eye, but the trigger to purchase when it comes down to the bottom line – in reality the only line – is cost.

“There’s this strange dichotomy of being open-minded and prepared to try new things at one level and a strong desire to keep everything just the same at another level,” observes structural packaging design director at PI3 Innovation Steve Kelsey.

“Conservatism in the US is part of the country’s culture. It has nothing to do with financial institutions or technology. This is reflected at the point of delivery. A visit to the average supermarket is like travelling back in time.

“Scale is big, of course, but in UK terms standards of presentation are unacceptable unless your positioning is very low-cost. Lighting is poor, shelf-fittings are unexciting, overall ambience does not count for much – it’s just a shed in which to sell groceries.

“Don’t forget that America is the land of the bulk pack. When talking about scale of collation for products like beer, it has to be associated with wholesale distribution rather than retail.

“Brand preference is there and plays a similar role to the UK in attracting customers but there’s also a strong own-label culture within the club-stores and multiples so brand owners effectively have to pay for product placement. Retailers drive the cost lower and do little to add value to the experience.”

This pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap bulk-size philosophy is confirmed by Don Paulsen, international sales director of Amcor Flexibles Europe, based in Ohio.

“The big difference is in the general size of packs. They are significantly larger than for the same products in Europe. Adding to this trend is the very popular growth of the club store or warehouse stores concept such as Sam’s (a division of WalMart), Costco and BJ Warehouse Club, where consumers can purchase significantly over-sized packs.

“Product displays are often on the pallet itself. An example would be a huge box of breakfast cereal that contains two separate HD/EVA blown co-extruded bags, each filled with cereal – just one of which would probably be larger than any cereal pack in Europe.”

The inescapable inference is that appearances don’t necessarily count. What’s actually in the pack – and how much there is of it – is of far more importance.

In a market dominated by relatively few packaging suppliers, all over-sensitive to the risk of litigation that can arise out of almost banal opportunism, perhaps its understandable enough that innovation might take a back seat.

A commoditised approach is provided for what is essentially a commodity proposition. Flair might appear to be thin on the ground but there can be no disputing the sheer efficiency of delivery.

Design Bridge managing director Nick Verebelyi believes that the US approach to pack presentation has some lessons to teach us, albeit hard-nosed ones.

“There is the often made claim that American branding is crude, simplistic and unimaginative, and five or 10 years behind the UK and Europe.

“In my view they are just very rational about it all. I think it’s about the hunger for value: how many benefits has product ‘A’ got over product ‘B’. So it’s actually about price and benefit.

“There’s very little emotive communication. Brand presentation is very much along the lines of tell it like it is. There’s very little left to the imagination and very little abstract or subliminal communication.

“This may well be reflective of the huge variation of education across the US. Simple cues work best, as evidenced by the almost universal use of italicised sans serif typeface, quite often in block letters.

“In fact, they have a lot to teach us. It’s very easy to write off that straightforward style as being unsophisticated. The more power-oriented the brand, the more effective that US style is.

“It just doesn’t allow for too much individuality but then Americans are not individualists in the way they express themselves. There’s a great desire to conform in everyday behaviour – and this reflects in the way that brands express themselves as well.

“It’s not an environment within which the oddball or the eccentric is terribly well accepted.” That kind of accommodation pretty rapidly becomes sanitised – think of Dudley Moore or Ozzy Osbourne.

This is not to say that US pack development isn’t averse to pushing the envelope in order to open up new commercial possibilities.

This is the industry that gave us the aerosol; this is the market that quite literally invented the grazing culture; with plastics as the material most lending itself to on the move consumption.

Convenience, too, is a defining characteristic, says Don Paulsen. “It’s a major factor here so any pack style with added convenience features will be popular.

“As an example, over the last five years or so, the adoption of stand-up pouches has grown tremendously and, with that, the re-closable zipper. Now, even the re-closable ‘slider’ technology is in the market – more expensive but easier to use.”

Amcor has recently applied its injection and blow-moulding technology to the introduction of its Ultimate range of multi-serve, hot-fill PET bottle designs suitable for beverages such as juices, nectar, sport drinks, isotonics and herbal teas.

The stock containers are being positioned as an alternative to the more traditional approaches to hot-fill products and offer a range of performance benefits including weight reduction and top load improvements.

Tetra Pak has recently gained FDA acceptance for its new aseptic filler for HDPE bottles in commercial use for food and beverage products with dairy ingredients such as flavoured milks, infant formulas, nutritional drinks, and prepared foods, enabling them to be packed and distributed without refrigeration.

According to Tetra Pak marketing vice-president Jeff Kellar, this development could potentially challenge retort cans as the primary package and process for low acid products.

The company is targeting manufacturers currently packaging products in metal or glass. They are now being encouraged to take advantage of lighter weight substrates, affording greater flexibility in shape, size and design for product differentiation, shelf impact and brand image.

Single-serve drinks are currently big business in the States, a trend that influenced the Hain Celestial Group – market-leading producer of nutritional beverages – to specify the aseptically-processed Tetra Pak Wedge for its Westsoy range of 15 soy and rice-based flavours.

Tetra’s aseptic packaging solution was also specified for Horizon’s new organic Milk-on-the-Moo-ve single-serve milk drink, allowing the product to be stored ambient or chilled without any additives or preservatives, and to remain shelf-stable for extended periods of time. The pack’s 100% recyclability carried further appeal to consumers of all ages.

‘Milk with attitude’ is the market position being established for Dr Pepper’s foray into the white stuff sector with its Raging Cow range of five different flavours in single-serve packs, including Piña Colada Chaos and Chocolate Insanity. Some might say that this could only happen in America but this is not necessarily so as Ben & Jerry have proved in the past.

While Don Paulsen observes that the use of PVC or saran is still widely used in the US as a barrier substance, with no successful environmental movement here to limit or halt its usage, biodegradable packaging is beginning to register a response among manufacturers and consumers alike.

EarthShell Corporation is currently developing a range of agricultural-based packaging materials as a replacement for traditional PS foam within the burgeoning food service sector. Manufactured primarily from natural limestone and potato starch, applications include sandwich packs, bowls, plates and hinged-lid containers.

EarthShell is working in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture’s Research Service and is engaged in establishing licensing agreements within the packaging manufacturing supplier base. “Expanding the use of agricultural products in packaging is an important step in reducing the amount of petroleum employed in the production of food service disposables,” notes Richard Brenner, ARS deputy assistant administrator.

“The Americans are great opportunists,” says Nick Verebelyi. “They’re great ones for having something in the coffee-cup holder. The Nabisco plastics thermoformed cup with its resealable lid is a fine example.”