National WIC Association

The Elusive 18 Ounce Box of WIC Cereal

November 30, 2017
Categories: Array

Melanie Hall, Kellogg

Me: I’m really excited about this cereal, can we get it in an 18 ounce box?
Food developer: Sure no problem, it’ll be close to that.
Me: No, no, no… I mean I need the weight of the box to be 18.0 ounces.
Food developer: … uh… wait, what?

And that’s pretty much how one of my first food renovation meetings went— back in 2010. Having started my career in public health, my first year working in the food industry was a fascinating learning experience. Prior to coming to Kellogg, I had been building public/private partnerships for California SNAP, so despite my experience in public health, I still had plenty to learn about both WIC and my new role. To keep things simple, I decided to focus on one major goal for my first year: resizing our WIC cereals into 18 oz. boxes so that clients could easily use all 36 oz. of their monthly cereal allotment.

How hard could that be?

All I would need to do is explain to the brand teams that they need to put more food in the box, right? Well, in the months that followed my initial meeting, I learned about the many factors that contribute to something as seemingly simple as the size and weight of a box of cereal. For today, I’ll sum it up into three main factors: retailer needs, consumer perception, and ingredients.

Retailer needs: the long and the short of it

Retailers determine what they will accept partially based on what will fit on the shelves in their store. The width, height, and depth of a cereal box are largely determined by these stocking needs:

  • Width: Most grocery store aisles are made up of a series of four foot wide shelves. Retailers have to balance how many large, medium, or small boxes they can display, to offer the best selection for shoppers, leaving manufacturers to consider how to make a variety of their packages fit side by side in a four foot space.
  • Height: The distance between shelves from top to bottom is pretty standard. Most retailers prefer to use five shelves while making sure the top shelf isn’t too high to see or difficult to reach.
  • Depth: to cut down on time spent stocking shelves, retailers like boxes to be narrow enough that the entire case of cereal can fit on the shelf behind one package or “facing”.
  • The final box has to fit perfectly into cases, which need to fit perfectly onto pallets, which need to fit perfectly onto trucks. Get this step right and the food can get to the store with as few trips as possible (to lower travel costs and carbon footprint) and little to no crushed food.

Shopper perceptions: first impressions go a long way!

If you open a box of food and find it to be only half full, what is your first reaction? Probably not a good one; no one likes paying for air. Now if you open a box of crushed food you probably won’t be any happier; no one likes to pay for a box of crumbs, either. So manufacturers do a lot of research to establish the right amount― or a “fill line”― for each box so that it does not get crushed in transport nor look like too little food when shoppers open the box.

Ingredients: A weighty matter

Okay, we now know a cereal box’s size is partially determined by how the cereal will be placed on shelf, as well as how much each box will be filled to give shoppers the best experience. So the final factor we’ll discuss that determines the weight of a specific package of cereal is…. the weight of the ingredients. Or more accurately, the density. Unlike other WIC food categories, the five main types of cereal (wheat, oats, corn, rice, and multigrain) can have drastically different densities. And the variety of food forms, flakes, puffed, nuggets, shredded, etc., are going to fill that space in the box differently too (not to mention other add-ins like fruit or clusters).

Going back to my initial meeting with the confused food developer in 2010, my request to put a cereal into an 18 ounce box confused the developer because the package weight is usually discovered after considering all the factors that protect the food and control the cost of getting the box on the shelf. Though there is a ballpark idea of where a weight will land, aiming for a specific number could mean ignoring one or more of the factors described above (and several others we don’t have time to get into today).

Are 18 oz. cereal boxes impossible? No, but a lot of time and investment can go into resizing packaging. And once a WIC cereal is made in an 18 ounce size, the pressures described above don’t go away. Retailer requests, shopper feedback, operating costs, and other factors can also give manufacturers reasons to move away from WIC-friendly packaging.

So what’s the answer? Stakeholders on all sides are always working to improve clients’ shopping experience. There’s manufacturer resizing, retailer signage, state agency package size policies, local agency education, and more. Every solution has its pros (e.g. improved shopping experience) and cons (e.g. fewer enjoyable options) which influence redemption rates and ultimately the consumption of iron-fortified cereal in WIC households. And while there is no single solution yet, blogs like this serve as an important way to provide readers like you with a better understanding of the close partnerships that exist between manufacturers and retailers, and help you understand the complex process behind bringing these important foods to clients. Once all parties involved better understand each other, great strides can be made in creating solutions that improve program integrity, participation rates, iron consumption, and client outcomes.

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