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In Store

Warming Up to Packaging

Russians Are Starting to Learn: Presentation Counts

By Kathy Lally
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page F05

The end of communism was a messy affair, and Russians are still cleaning up after it. When price controls were dropped early in 1992, introducing elements of capitalism and consumer culture, a cold wind was blowing. Before you knew it, plastic grocery bags were hanging from the trees, aluminum soda bottles were crunching under foot and empty juice boxes were clogging the gutters.

Russians were shifting from a system that was convenient for distributors to one that was appealing for shoppers, and they quickly had litter to show for it.

(Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

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You didn't have to worry about packaging when your grocery stores didn't care whether you shopped there or not and a free plastic bag was tantamount to a capitalist plot. You didn't have to worry about the downside of disposability when juice was sold in unwieldy multi-gallon glass bottles that required strong shoulders to carry home. But once a store's sales began to reflect on its manager, or one juice manufacturer began to compete against another, customer convenience and desire had to be served. Appealing -- and manageable -- packages soon appeared on the shelves.

What followed was predictable: more consumer satisfaction . . . followed by an anti-litter campaign.

Fritz Yambrach, a professor of packaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology, calls packaging a blend of materials, science, fabrication, engineering and marketing -- with a little bit of witchcraft thrown in.

"Packaging is our fourth-largest industry," he says, "and no one knows about it."

I often think of packaging -- and those first plastic bags blowing in the wind -- when I'm in a store, particularly a supermarket, and I start to wonder what makes me reach out for a particular item on the shelf, and why it looks the way it does.

Why do I want my spaghetti sauce in a glass jar but not my tomatoes? Why do beets come in glass jars, but the beans down the shelf are in a can? What does a polystyrene egg carton do that cardboard doesn't?

When it comes to tomatoes, for me it's a matter of not wanting to face the facts. A preserved tomato is not a pretty sight, a blob floating in a sea of juice and seeds.

No. I'd rather imagine the contents as they appear on the label, bright red, firm of texture, fresh from the farm.

Spaghetti sauce is a different matter. I want to look through the glass and see thickness, succulence, reassurance that I really can't make it faster and better myself. And of course I want it in glass so I can put the lid back on and refrigerate it for another day.

So why will I buy corn oil in plastic bottles but olive oil requires glass? Must be a matter of class. Olive oil costs a lot more, and I want it to look as if it's worth it.

"It's clear," Yambrach says. "It's pristine. People like glass."

That brings me back to the humble beet. Why should it rate glass? One reason, Yambrach says, is that beets, like apple sauce, are packed hot, and glass can take the temperatures required for a hot fill.

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