“Are you crazy?” When Oleen Smethurst first began her push of the Top Seal packaging program, a few of her initial suppliers had this response.
“Those first critiques were that this innovation would not work. Years ago, peelable and peel-reseal technology was not achieving the same goals we are striving for today,” Oleen, GMM Produce, Costco Wholesale Canada, tells me. It’s been leaps and bounds since then, as Costco’s produce packaging has evolved across the board.
Oleen is one of the chief advocates of Top Seal technology and a driving force in its implementation across the produce industry. Technology has vastly evolved and as Oleen tells me, the packaging that people may be using as a reference from years ago, is not the packaging of today.
“When you replace clamshell lids with Top Seal you also reduce the plastic use by up to 25 percent..." - Oleen Smethurst
Top Seal brings a host of advantages to produce, from creating higher product visibility to supporting the quality and freshness of the item. In addition, Top Seal promotes a longer shelf life by controlling the respiration rates with micro and macro-perforated film. Top Seal’s technology, also referred to as Heat Seal technology, can be utilized through a simple peelable format or peel and reseal, depending on the demands and uses of the product.
“When you replace clamshell lids with Top Seal you also reduce the plastic use by up to 25 percent, creating more sustainable packaging - a big talking point with members."
Top Seal aligns with North America’s drive toward sustainability across all industries by using more and more of the continent’s recyclable plastic bottles to lessen Top Seal’s environmental impact. For some suppliers, there is also the opportunity to transport more produce with Top Seal and its more efficient stackability component. The strength of the packaging allows more rows to be utilized and can travel well over longer distances. In addition, stackability provides a more effective use of retail shelf space. While the easy-to-open container provides quick access to produce, the flexible closure comes with the unique ability to reseal multiple times without losing functionality.
One concern with similar resealable technology has been possible tampering during its journey through the supply chain. Peel and reseal features a tamper evident seal to lift member confidence in the integrity of the packaging.
“At Costco Wholesale Canada, we are hoping to transition as many commodities and vendors to Top Seal as possible. I feel it is the right thing to do for the environment, our industry, and members alike,” Oleen continues.
When I ask Oleen how she discovered the innovation, she tells me that her journey began in the United Kingdom. A couple years ago, after wrapping up a Fruit Logistica event, Oleen went with one of Costco’s packaging specialists, Jason Shuttleworth, to check out packaging advances that were being utilized by U.K. retailers. Chains like Tesco and Marks and Spencer were using Top Seal on almost all of their produce items. Pair the clean presentation with its quality and visibility factors, and it just seemed like a perfect fit.
As Oleen began to build on her knowledge of Top Seal, Costco looked for suppliers who would be willing to partner and commit to transitioning their categories to the new packaging. Mastronardi/SUNSET® had already been in the advanced stages of working with Top Seal on new peelable packaging.
“Mastronardi was the first company to partner with us on the Top Seal conversion,” Oleen tells me. “They had been working with Top Seal before I came to them and had initiated the peelable packaging with grape tomatoes. This conversion alone saved 36,000 lbs. of plastic a year just on grape tomatoes on the East Coast,” Oleen says. Mastronardi also found out that they could save on cases – instead of stacking the product just one layer high, they could stack two layers of product since the packaging is much sturdier and durable than most people think.
Paul Mastronardi, CEO of Mastronardi Produce/SUNSET®, tells me, “Top Seal packaging has many advantages for both the member and retailer. The design allows for opportunity snacking, which means members are more likely to eat tomatoes throughout the day. Simply peel the film, rinse in the bowl, and set it out on the counter.”
Since snacking tomatoes are typically consumed quickly, relative to shelf life, SUNSET® had gone with the peelable, as opposed to resealable, option to promote the snacking component throughout the day.
“At Costco Wholesale Canada, we are hoping to transition as many commodities and vendors to Top Seal as possible. I feel it is the right thing to do for the environment, our industry, and members alike..."
“The package has a sleek look with a preprinted, high graphic film and of course, less material than a traditional clamshell, meaning less waste. Not to mention the entire package is 100 percent recyclable. We’re proud to share our Top Seal vision with Costco and work together with key suppliers to increase sales,” Paul adds.
Costco Canada has also been working with vendors in its blueberry category that have already transitioned, as well as vendors that are transitioning for summer programs. Take Naturipe for example, who has already adopted the Top Seal program. The company is using Top Seal/Heat Seal’s peel-reseal technology, to enhance its product prowess.
“Typically, members will not eat 2 lbs. of blueberries in one sitting and so the resealable packaging makes more sense,” Oleen says.
As Naturipe continues to reinvent its product line, Robert Verloop, Executive VP of Marketing for Naturipe Farms, tells me, “Innovations in packaging are part of our DNA at Naturipe. Several years ago we used heat seal technologies to enable the development of our Ready-to-Eat blueberry snack products. We saw the opportunity to expand to our large packs, and have worked closely with a range of packaging experts/suppliers and our customers to bring the current version to the marketplace. Our heat seal film, with a peel and reseal top, is another step forward in implementing sustainable technologies that make healthy great tasting fresh blueberries more convenient for members, enhance merchandising of the berries on retail displays, and give chefs more flexibility for their restaurant operations.”
Costco has a goal of moving all produce categories to Top Seal, based on their adaptability to the program.
Naturipe offers heat sealed blueberries in the 18 oz. and 2 lb. trays and are available from operations in GA, CA, NJ, MI, OR, and BC.
In the coming year, Costco has a goal of moving all produce categories to Top Seal, based on their adaptability to the program. Highline Mushrooms is currently in the works and is slated to make its debut this year. Costco also has a smaller TOV in the East, which they are working to transition to Top Seal. In addition, packaged salads are also making their way to the Top Seal program with items like Misionero’s Garden Life Washed and Trimmed Lettuce and Misionero Earth Greens Organic Salads.
Dan Canales, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Misionero Vegetables, tells me, "Oleen has a great sense and knowledge of new and emerging packaging and products. She is willing to be a leader in order to continue bringing value and uniqueness to Costco's members. The ‘peel and reseal’ technology is a prime example of that.”
Costco Canada is also testing Coronation grapes, nectarines, and kiwi fruit. As with implementing any new program or business model, there are always the hurdles and the concerns. “There were challenges to transitioning to the Top Seal program in the early stages. But the ROI proves that this program is worth every penny,” Oleen says. “There is quite a bit of initial investment right from the start. But those that have partnered with us have our commitment to them, and we have theirs in return.”
In some cases, Costco Canada even partners with its vendors all the way to the seed, traveling with suppliers to Holland for hot house seed tours. As everything is transitioning back towards quality and flavor, Oleen likes to be involved right from the beginning to observe the development of varieties, each step of the way. Top Seal machinery can handle heavier volumes at a quick pace as well, and depending on the facility it may be even more efficient for packer and shippers.
“From a packing standpoint, Top Seal’s efficiencies become one of those elements that affect a higher ROI,” she notes.
The Top Seal program is gaining ground, as macro and micro-perforated film is now produced by multiple suppliers from Italy to the U.S. In Canada, Costco is not repacking product, which is a concern that suppliers might have had with similar peel-reseal technology.
“It comes down to providing better quality for the member. Everything about the end product is beneficial, and it is selling well,” Oleen says. “Members can be a little bit hesitant when it comes to packaging changes and understanding the dynamic, but with Top Seal they are loving it.”
While Oleen remains at the forefront of packaging trends, she reminds me that she did not initially begin in produce with Costco, but was promoted into the role 10 years ago. Previously, she worked throughout just about every other food category during her time in Food and Sundries.
“I had very little hands-on, produce-focused experience when I first put my toe in the water. The suppliers were a huge part of the learning process. They put up with all my questions–the growers have been my teachers,” she says.
Perhaps taking a cue from suppliers that she's come to know and respect, Oleen tells me that produce is ever-changing. "In a word, produce is dynamic,” she notes.
Top Seal is proving to be a win-win for both Costco and its vendor partners, providing the quality, visibility and freshness members have come to depend on, while aligning with the industry’s sustainability initiatives.
Crazy? More like inspired.