If you asked for three words to sum up Britain in the 21st century, a pessimist might come up with ‘lonely’, ‘busy’ and ‘aging’. Government figures indicate the number of single-person households is increasing by more than 160,000 a year, and those of us who are still of working age or who have families seem busier than ever before.
But it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, as food manufacturers fill supermarket shelves with a range of ever-more creative single-serve food products to tempt harassed or solitary shoppers. According to Mintel Oxygen global packaging analyst Benjamin Punchard, UK launches of single serve prepared meals under 250g have seen consistent growth over the past five years, with over 51% of new prepared food launches in 2012 to date in single serve sizes.
Single-serve in the ambient food sector is nothing new – Pot Noodle has been around for decades, after all – but the segment has been particularly active in the past year or two. There have been launches by Dorset Cereals, Oat So Simple and Kellogg’s in the breakfast market, and the development of new single-serve formats for Tabasco sauce, ketchup and Bisto seasoning.
This year saw Asda moving into ‘snap and squeeze’ salad dressing sachets. This growing popularity comes even though portions are more expensive than their value counterparts. “Consumers are increasingly willing to spend more per volume in order to get multipacks of single serve sizes,” argues Meg Patel, account director at design agency Dragon Rouge. “This seems irrational, but it appears to have become the optimal ‘value’ option to many consumers, as this is derived from the when, where and how they are eaten.”
Ambient is also nosing at the ready-meal market. Bloom Design brand director Max Spiegelberg argues that Tilda Stir Fry and Tilda Kids, for instance, offer both “portionability and convenience while staying true to the brand’s core brand qualities of purity, ethics and basmati passion.”
Premier Foods has also moved into the space with the Loyd Grossman for One cooking sauce pouch – the launch of a Bolognese flavour bringing the range to nine variants.
“The format has proved very popular among consumers,” says Loyd Grossman Sauces brand manager Elliot Harris. “Data shows that there is growth in single person meal occasions. These are not just people living alone, but families that eat at different times due to busy and hectic lifestyles.” It’s a trend that has seen steady growth in the small pack size Italian cooking sauces market, which is up 14% between 2008 and 2012 to £13.8m.
The snacking trend has also changed the face of the cake market, with the shelves now full of single-serve, individually wrapped options alongside more traditional whole cakes for family sharing. “Today, it is much easier to incorporate cakes into lunchboxes or to use them as between-meals snacks while on the move or at work,” says Patel. So much so, in fact, that individual cakes and cake bars now represent more than 60% of the wrapped cakes market.
Pearlfisher realisation director Shaun Jones, meanwhile, believes ambient faces a real challenge from fresh convenience stores like Pret à Manger and Eat and fresh convenience meal innovations from brands such as Innocent Veg Pots and Easy Bean.
But he argues this “not only creates a challenging environment but also provides exciting opportunities” for ambient brands such as Uncle Ben’s. Some, though, believe ambient single-serve has its limits.
“People won’t want to make meals with just single serve components,” says Elmwood London managing director Elliot Wilson. He argues that consumers are willing to invest in a bit of inconvenience to make proper meals. When it comes to competition with chilled ready meals, he says, “I don’t think the solutions are out there”.
But Holmes & Marchant structural designer Steve Gummer disagrees. “Single-serve portions empower people to assemble their own ready-made meals. Without having to cook anything from scratch they can piece together a meal from single-serve portions and it is brands such as Uncle Ben’s and Bisto that facilitate this.”
And the definition of “meal” is also changing. According to Mintel, “consumers have become less regimented in their consumption patterns and consume nearly any type of food at any time of day, causing the definition of ‘mealtime’ to become blurry”.
Products such as Pringles Restaurant Cravers potato crisps in the US offer “meal-style” flavours such as mozzarella sticks and marinara, cheeseburger, onion blossom and cheesy fries which rushed (or lazy) consumers may substitute for real meals on the go.
The rise in single serve has its issues for packaging designers and manufacturers, of course – not least thorny environmental questions. “The packaging of these food items inevitably increases, and therefore this consumption trend has a negative impact on the environment,” warns Patel.
But others take a wider view. “Single-serve packs are changing the way people manage waste,” says Gummer. “The general perception is that single-serve portions produce less of it.” And though, say, pouches are not currently recyclable, they are much lighter than glass jars, so provide logistics efficiencies in terms of transit weight, argues Premier Foods’ Harris, who adds: “There is of course the benefit of food wastage, as often half used jars will sit in peoples’ fridges before inevitably being thrown away.” Ultimately it’s a tradeoff between food waste and landfill issues, says Wilson.
The challenge for brands is how to approach packaging design for single serve portions. Sometimes, of course, less is literally more. “The pouch format actually provides a larger area for branding than a sauce in a jar due to the larger facing on shelf,” notes Harris.
But otherwise, single-serve’s special requirements offer opportunities for innovation. Holmes & Marchant’s Steve Gummer argues: “Single-serve offers a great opportunity for packaging designers like working with new material technology.”
One approach is to make the packaging embody the key benefits of the format, such as portion control, with calorie-counted options, resealable packs or tubs and separated single servings. “Innovative structure plays an important role, as functionality is key,” explains Pearlfisher’s Jones.
And even when single-serve is smaller, it can still convey brand values. “You have less space to fit things in – but we’d encourage our clients to be single-minded in brand communication,” says Elmwood’s Wilson.
Crucially though, most concur that packaging design in this sector has to focus on consumer psychology. “You need to fully understand the consumer need that the product is answering,” says Honey managing director Doug James. “The product proposition, brand positioning, and where and how it fits into the consumer’s lifestyle.”
“We must fill the functional and emotional needs of the consumer,” agrees Holmes & Marchant’s Gummer. “The design must be relative and personal to the consumer, where and when, how and why they will be enjoying the products. The product should be designed to fit these situations.”
Brands also need to tackle the stigmas inherent in the ready meal market, warns Bloom’s Spiegelberg. “Communication of quality should underpin the product offer,” he suggests, though without overdoing it. “Simple, vibrant graphics and passionately honest communications tackle ready meal stigmas head on.”
Ultimately, scale shouldn’t be a factor that hinders a good packaging designer. “We’ve done work on stamps before, and you can’t get much smaller than that,” says Elmwood’s Wilson. “Design experts know how to leverage that space.”