When Nestle SA launched its Country Creamery ice cream a few weeks ago, one of the product's big selling points had nothing to do with chocolate or vanilla. It was its container.
Nestle designers spent nine months to come up with a plastic lid -- easier to pull off when the ice cream is frozen -- and ribbed carton corners -- easier to grip when scooping. The effort is part of a new company-wide push at Nestle, the world's biggest food company, to make it easier for people to rip open its pouches, twist off its caps and reseal its tubs.
How a product is opened is a packager's priority. Containers need to be tight enough to withstand shipment to warehouses and stores yet must open easily once consumers get the product home. And while packaging has long had to be tamper-resistant, governments, concerned about terrorist attacks on food, have urged companies to make their packaging even tougher.
Nestle research indicates that hard-to-open packs are among consumers' top complaints. Last year, Helmut Traitler, Nestle's global head of packaging, ordered all his packaging engineers and designers worldwide to find ways to solve the problem. Due to lengthy product-development cycles, the changes are hitting store shelves now.
"We knew that some of the new packaging out there could be almost unopenable," Traitler said.
Changes in how people eat and drink are also forcing companies to think harder about caps, seals and lids. The rise in snacking is prompting companies to come up with packaging that is easy to open while driving a car or walking down the street. And easy openings are key for two important target customer groups -- kids and aging baby boomers.
"My daughter has come home and said she's not been able to eat all her snacks because she couldn't open them," said Tracey Arneson, a 41-year-old mother of two in Cheshire, Conn.
Nestle, based in Vevey, Switzerland, stations packaging teams around the world; each team is required to present an inventory of improvements every quarter. Some are as simple as slightly deeper indentations in the flat end of candy wrappers in Brazil that make them easier to rip open and deeper notches on single-serve packets of Nescafe in China. Nestle asked its suppliers to find a type of glue to make the clicking sound louder when opening the tube of its Smarties candies, the colorful chocolates popular with British children. The company says it has introduced nearly 100 changes so far.
Nestle's biggest problem has been cost. The cost of packaging has soared this year along with the price of oil, a major ingredient in packaging parts including water bottles and film wrap. For example, prices for Nestle's plastic packaging rose by 20 percent to 35 percent last year. Packaging can cost less than 1 percent to as much as 15 percent of the overall cost to make a Nestle product. Resealable plastic bags, particularly popular with older people and busy moms, can add an average of 20 percent to the cost of packages such as pouches for pet food, says John Kleindouwel, sales and marketing director of flexible packaging for Amcor Ltd., a packaging supplier to Kraft Foods Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and Nestle.
For its packaging, Nestle relies on outside suppliers, who work with its in-house designers and brand managers. Traitler has instructed the packaging teams to make changes without increasing costs wherever possible. Nestle, which had 2004 sales of $66 billion, spends about $5.9 billion a year on packaging.
When Nestle considered dropping its expensive flip-top sports cap on its Italian bottled water brand Acqua Panna and using a regular -- and cheaper -- screw cap instead, women in focus groups said they would be less likely to buy the water without the sports cap. So Nestle this year raised the price of its water by about 7 percent for a 75-centiliter bottle to cover the extra cost of the sports cap. Sales haven't suffered, said Lorenzo Potecchi, head of Nestle's retail water business in Italy.
Consumers are quick to complain about problems with a package top, Nestle has discovered. Nescafe marketing manager Marty Sharkey spent two years testing a new push-button lid before launching a revamped jar for Taster's Choice coffee in spring 2004. But after the launch, calls to Nestle's toll-free number surged. About half of Taster's Choice consumers are age 55 and up, and many were having trouble opening the lid, Nestle said.
So Nestle softened the spot where consumers press the button and shortened the latch inside the cap. To win back angry consumers, it branded the new closure a "Fresh Click" lid and replaced a recipe for cafe au lait on the side of the jar with the new "Fresh Click" logo showing two thumbs opening the lid. It sent the new seven-ounce jar, which hit the shelves in June, to thousands of consumers who had complained.
To pay for the change, Nestle trimmed the budget for other promotions. "Your most loyal consumers represent 70 percent of your volume," Sharkey said. "You'll find the money to keep that group satisfied."
Nestle has assigned worldwide packaging teams to come up with improvements every quarter. The lid of its Taster's Choice coffee was recently revamped after customer complaints.