Consumer behaviour in relation to food packaging

Start date:
October 2007
December 2007

Brook Lyndhurst was commissioned by WRAP to examine two aspects of consumer behaviour in relation to food waste: understanding (and use) of on-pack guidance dates; and demand for alternative portion sizes.

In relation to date labelling, the project aimed to investigate:

1) Consumer understanding of the four types of guidance dates displayed on pack by British retailers: use by, sell by, display until and best before; and

2) The role of these dates in consumers’ decisions on whether or not products need to be thrown away.

In relation to portion size, we aimed to examine:

1) Whether there is real demand for smaller pack sizes and what might drive this demand; and

2) How much customers might pay, if anything, for more suitable [smaller] pack sizes.

One of the main considerations in planning this work was that the research should be observational, testing consumer responses to food in a situation as close to the home environment as possible. The research was therefore conducted through six hall tests across three cities. A total of 418 people were observed in order to gain feedback on a range of products including bread, cook-in sauces, milk, ham, yoghurt and eggs.


Date labelling
The most striking finding from the research was the degree to which people claim to make use of guidance dates in some form or other. Despite some confusion, many correctly linked ‘best before’ dates with quality, ‘use by’ dates with safety and ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates with retailer guidance. There was, however, a sizeable minority who gave definitions that were either totally wrong or showed significant confusion.

People often use dates in conjunction with their own assessments of quality and safety, rather than as stand-alone information. During the tests, they appeared to discard food that had passed its guidance date when they were ‘distrustful’ of a product, but when they felt more confident, they used the date as a yardstick rather than a definitive guide. It also appeared that some consumers used the dates displayed on packs to form a judgement about the quality of the food, which in turn informed whether or not they were prepared to eat it (e.g. safety was not the only concern when looking at dates).

Portion sizes
We found that for many of the products tested, around a third of respondents had had issues with portion sizes - the vast majority complaining the packs were too large for their needs. We also found that consumers were not necessarily averse to paying a little more per unit of volume/weight to avoid being left with unnecessary surplus.

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