Tony Ferro admits it right up front. "This package costs 17¢ more than a round plastic container," says the vp of sales and marketing for Farm Fresh, a 25-year-old, Oklahoma City, OK-based cooperative owned by independent grocery retailers.
Consider too, though, what he says he gets for the money: a rectangular-shaped ice cream container with rounded corners, popularized by Breyers, which has more efficient cube compared to round containers; a high-density polyethylene tub that won't collapse in the consumer's freezer when half-empty and weighed down by a stack of frozen T-bones; and a friction-fit low-density PE lid-itself in-mold labeled-that tightly seals the package, keeping out off-flavors and preventing ice crystal formation, which affects taste.
And finally: gorgeous, offset-printed, color-saturated graphics, covering all of the sidewalls except for a small side seam. And it's done by what's believed to be one of the first uses of in-mold labeling for full container sidewall coverage. According to Cardinal Packaging (Streetsboro, OH), which supplies the package and developed the proprietary IML technique, it was the only way to get full-coverage graphics on a non-round container. (Cardinal calls the package shape a Sqround®-a quasi-contraction of "square round.")
The rectangular shape also improves shipping efficiencies. Farm Fresh reports that each shipper now contains four of the rectangular 1/2-gal packages versus three 1/2-gal round plastic containers, a 33% increase in shipping space utilization. Those efficiencies are even greater on the grocer's shelves, according to Ferro.
"We can fit eighty percent more packages in a coffin-style freezer case and forty-three percent more product in an upright freezer compared to the round," says Ferro.
That in turn benefits Farm Fresh by reducing the incidence of out-of-stock product. "For promotions, there's less of a chance of us running out of stock now that we've got a lot more product on the shelf," he says.
Why was a rectangular package so important? In looking to improve its existing packaging, Ferro explains that Farm Fresh's research indicated consumers preferred rectangular ice cream packages to round. But they didn't like the fact that existing rectangular packs were made of paper, which consumers felt had shortcomings in resealability, stacking strength in the freezer and reclosability.
During Farm Fresh's container search, Cardinal showed a prototype of a 100% plastic container. However, obtaining attractive, printed graphics using traditional container printing is more difficult on plastic than on paper, says Ferro. And creating taste appeal through decoration was crucial.
Cardinal told Farm Fresh about a wraparound in-mold labeling process it discovered in Europe. "When we saw preliminary samples of how good the graphics were, we jumped all over it," says Ferro.
Cardinal engineered its own version of the labeling technology to fit on its Husky (Bolton, Ontario, Canada) injection molders.
"The European techniques are good for small cavitation, and we're doing large cavitation using multi-cavity tooling," says Cardinal's Bill Regan, vp sales/marketing. "Also, our cycles are faster than what we've seen in Europe." Regan declined to identify specific numbers of cavities or speeds, "because that's part of the trick." The Husky injection molders, says Regan, are especially designed for thinwall injection molding.
Cardinal also declined to provide specifics on how the labeling is actually done, except to say that labels are placed around the core of the mold via robotics. "After the label is in place, plastic is injected into the mold and the label bonds with the container," explains Regan.
Once on the container, the surface of the in-mold labels appears to have a rich, textured appearance. That's intentional, says Regan. "It's created by the shrinkage of the specific kind of material that the labels are made from."
Plastic label, plastic container
Although Regan again declines to divulge the composition of the label, he describes it as "predominantly high-density polyethylene," that makes it compatible with the HDPE container for recycling. The labels are offset-printed in four process colors and two line colors plus a UV gloss coating. Cardinal declines to identify the label converter.
The lid is injection-molded on the same equipment, although with different molds, of low-density PE.
"We're the only ones in the U.S. that I've seen making a full-coverage, in-mold labeled package," says Regan. "There are not many options for decorating non-round containers, especially for full coverage. I haven't seen a package like this anywhere else, and certainly not in the ice cream business."
Cardinal also supplied Farm Fresh with filling and lidding equipment that's designed to accommodate the rectangular shape. "It's not any different from a regular filler, it just handles a rectangular package," explains James Roberson, Farm Fresh's vp of manufacturing.
The system consists of a container denester, volumetric filling head and lidder. "It's the package design that makes this different rather than the filler itself," says Roberson.
Pushes product upscale
But still, a 17¢-per-package upcharge is steep. How does Farm Fresh justify it? By using the package to position the ice cream inside as more of an upscale product with a suggested retail price of $4.49 to $4.69 for a 1/2 gal.
Farm Fresh continues to market its premium ice cream in round 1/2-gallon plastic containers for $3.69 to $4.00.
The only difference between the two lines is the packaging and the addition of new flavors for ice creams packed in the Sqround. Farm Fresh also sells regular ice cream in a traditional rectangular paperboard pack for $2.69 to $2.99.
"It's a value-added package for a premium product," says Ferro of the new package. The packages are sold under the Farm Fresh and Health Break brands in AR, KS, MO, TX and OK.
Since the package just began shipping in June, it was too early for Ferro to comment on sales. "All I can tell you is that as soon as we put it in, the takeaway has been remarkable."