Organics unpacked

Absence of packaging can promote the sales of organic fruit and vegetables

Have you ever wanted to buy fruit and vegetables in your local supermarket and wondered about the plastic wrapping that these products often come in? Have you asked yourself whether it would not be better to offer these products without such a plastic packaging? If so, you are not the only one.

There have been initiatives to protest the use of plastic wrappings for fruit and vegetables, such as this petition in Australia. Moreover, new supermarket concepts have appeared throughout Europe, in which products are offered without packaging, such as Original Unverpackt in Berlin (Germany). Well-established supermarket chains likewise adapt to consumer concerns about packing by leaving out packaging where possible (for instance the Albert Heijn in the Netherlands).

These recent changes have inspired Erica van Herpen, Victor Immink, and Jos van den Puttelaar to study consumer choices for fruit and vegetables that are wrapped in plastic versus unpacked. They focused on the primary packaging: the packaging that the consumer sees in the supermarket (and not the packaging that may be used in transport and such). They conducted two experiments using a virtual supermarket, one experiment with student participants and one experiment with regular supermarket patrons. This research has recently appeared in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

In the experiments, people saw a fruit and vegetable department of a supermarket, in which either the organic or the non-organic options were offered unpacked (and the other with plastic wrapping). Results of the two experiments show that unpacked fruit and vegetables are generally preferred over packed options. In the second experiment, where sales were compared to a case in which both options were unpacked, this occurred equally both for organic and non-organic options.

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Still, these findings are especially relevant for organic fruit and vegetables, as it is common practice to offer organic options with and non-organic options without packaging, as a way to ensure that these are not mixed up and that there is no cross-contamination. This puts organic fruit and vegetables at a disadvantage in terms of consumer choice. Since fruit and vegetables appear to sell better when these are unpacked, removing the primary packaging of organic fruit and vegetables appears to be a promising intervention in attempts to increase organic sales.

Of course packaging can have many advantages: it keeps products together, protects the product and preserves quality, and can provide information to consumers. Therefore, the decision on whether to offer products with or without packaging should not be taken lightly. Consumer responses are relevant and important for managers to take into account in their decision-making process, but clearly there are other important factors to consider as well.

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Erica van Herpen

About Erica van Herpen

Erica van Herpen is associate professor in consumer behavior. Her general research topic is consumer behavior at the point-of-purchase in retail settings. Topics center on (1) general store context (store layout, atmospherics, social influence), (2) on-shelf product presentation (shelf organization, product packaging, health claims), and (3) the use of novel research tools such as the virtual supermarket. In addition, Erica examines consumer food waste.

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