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 11 February 2009
 
 Cashing in on Leftovers
 
 
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Flipping a trend to
the positive
Americans aren't eating out much these days. But they're eating at home – and have a refreshed appetite for the humble leftover. That spells a growing opportunity for retailers and manufacturers of food storage containers and gadgets that make leftovers more palatable.

With the trade show season re-opening for the new year, Alicia Wynne, buyer for the four-store Table Talk retail chain in Arizona, is hoping to detect goods that will spark consumer enthusiasm for dining in. "We saw a lot of sales of smaller items over Christmas," she says. "People are trying to save money. They're cooking more at home."

Retailers and manufacturers of food storage containers see two types of opportunities for food storage retailers: containers that make leftovers more fun, and those that keep leftovers fresh and attractive longer.

For Hong Kong storage suppliers and manufacturers, the trend could spell an opportunity to make the most of shipping relatively inexpensive items on variable consignment sizes. Even those manufacturers not in the sector could make use of plastics inventories and processing equipment that have gone offline with a fall in demand for other products.

American retailers could also use a silver lining. Sales of more glamorous types of houseware fell steadily in 2008, reported the International Housewares Association. Small appliance sales, for instance, were down 11 per cent in volume. Thanks to the renewed interest in eating at home, cookware sales dropped only five per cent.

But if Newell Rubbermaid, the giant manufacturer of all kinds of plastic containers and housewares, is any indication, food storage is already a bright spot for 2009.

The public company reported a dire fall-off in earnings per share for the fourth quarter of 2008, with net sales declining 11.6 per cent. But as analysts report, Newell's food business – particularly for storage containers – saw an important uptick.

Making Frugal Fashionable

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Lock-on lids add value
Keeping leftovers fresh is a headache for American homemakers, according to a consumer poll conducted last summer for ShopSmart, a magazine published by the Consumers Union, a non-profit organisation that tests and reports on products and services.

American women own an average of 22 plastic containers for food storage, and store leftovers from four meals each week. They use their containers 87 per cent of the time when storing food, but also spend more than US$100 a year on disposable food storage and wraps.

The consumers polled by ShopSmart weren't too impressed with their storing arrangements: 71 per cent said they were frustrated by some aspect of using the containers, most often with losing the lids and dealing with stains. They also preferred glass or ceramic containers that can go from refrigerator to microwave to table.

Until this recession hit, enthusiasm for leftovers was lukewarm. Affection for leftovers has long been mixed, says Elisa Zied, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and a registered dietician.

It is a case that people want value for their money. Some, when eating in restaurants, plan to eat only half of what they are served and carry home the other half as a sort of take-out meal.

Time-pressed homemakers cook big batches of soup and casseroles with the intent of serving the same dish for several days. It's also an American tradition to bring to work a lunch from dinner leftovers the night before.

But the sharp, deep recession is making frugal fashionable. In November, public opinion polling firm Rasmussen Reports said that 57 per cent of Americans had cut back on dining out. That means, says Ms Zied, that Americans are getting serious about cutting waste. "I don't refer to leftovers as leftovers. I call them mix-and-match meals," she says.

San Francisco resident Deborah Hamilton has made thriving small business out of leftover style. She used her knowledge of Japanese language and culture to create a website, Lunch in a Box. The site shows Americans how to adapt their leftovers to Japanese bento boxes, both in presentation, thrift and portion control.

Ms Hamilton's inspiration came as she struggled to pack nutritious lunches for her husband, who was at the time, coping with digestive problems. She realised that the elegant presentation of the bento box made his nutritionally correct lunches more appetising, while helping her organise how she prepared and planned the lunches.

"I started to explore ways you can make a bento – fast, easy, healthy and cheap," says Ms Hamilton of the website, which she launched in 2007. "Once I did that, it really took off."

In January, a survey at the site had collected opinions from 1,000 visitors, who ranked saving money as the number-three reason for using bento boxes. "Eating healthier" was number one, and "fun and playful" ranked second.

"This is a way of making it more fun and stylish. You can be so cool if you have a bento box. Even if what's inside is leftovers and some cheese and fruit. It looks impressive, and it's packaged nicely, when you open it up," Ms Hamilton says.

Keeping Food Palatable

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Steel containers for
specialty storage
Leftovers are only as valuable as they are palatable. The other major trend in food storage focuses on the basic point, which is keeping food consumable.

Vacuum storage gadgets and containers emerged about five years ago, says AJ Riedel, President of Riedel Marketing Group (RMG), a Phoenix-based market research firm that tracks the houseware market.

Even though most containers cost less than US$5 each, "there is plenty of room for innovation, and with that you can have a slight price premium," says Mr Riedel. Plastic containers with lids that seal onto bowls are widely understood and owned. About half of all American households own Tupperware, an iconic American brand, according to Riedel research.

Vacuum storage actually works, says Ms Zied of ADA, because exposure to oxygen speeds up food decomposition. Remove oxygen from the container, and the food lasts longer. That, plus the fact that few Americans have much awareness of food storage brands, has created a fast-growing segment, ripe with opportunities for new brands.

Vacu Vin, with American headquarters in North Carolina, is making steady inroads with specialty vacuum devices, reports the company’s US Marketing Director Tom Reikowski. A US$35 gadget for vacuum-sealing open bottles of wine has sold steadily.

Now, Vacu Vin is introducing a marinating container that leverages a vacuum to marinate meats quickly before they're cooked; it can store leftovers, too. Another winner is Vacu Vin's coffee container, which keeps pricey beans in top condition for home brewing.

Much of the appeal of the company's products is the high-quality polycarbonate used for the bowls. "A lot of it is aesthetics now," says Mr Reikowski. "Unless you have a durable material like polycarbonate, you can't get the seal."

And though vacuum seal products are widely available, Americans still may not realise how they work and why they're worth a premium, adds Mr Riedel. Typically, Americans buy new food containers when they see them in the store, but demonstrations are vital to driving sales of vacuum products.

That has borne out for Keepeez, a company launched only in 2007. It makes and markets a vacuum lid that can be used on any bowl, solving two problems at once: converting existing containers to vacuum, as well as replacing lost lids.

As simple as it sounds, the concept struggled until it was demonstrated on a popular home shopping television network, says National Sales Director Peter Milcarek.

"If you just have a lid on the shelf, it's hard to see the value of the product unless they see it illustrated," he says. Now, Keepeez LID, which retails four lids for US$14.90, is on a US road tour doing demonstrations in stores such as Costco.

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