Part of Berry Plastics’ market research is to host focus groups of consumers who discuss food packaging, brainstorm and voice their opinions about the Evansville, Ind., company’s packaging developments.

Just about once a month at Berry Plastics, Evansville, Ind., a group of people can be having a very animated conversation about food packaging. They joke and dream up big ideas, have lots of opinions about specific topics and provide valuable demographic consumer information about one package or another. The conversation may actually one day influence products that touch millions of consumers.

“I ain't going to go through all these steps to eat my food,” one man says, as he explains why he thinks a package would be too hard to open.

As part of its market research, Berry Plastics is one of many companies that make use of focus groups-selected individuals who are asked to give their opinions on specific topics. Until recently, it contracted with an outside company to do focus group research. When Berry Plastics completed its headquarters expansion this spring, it began doing the work in-house.

Since April, Berry Plastics has hosted focus group sessions at least once a month. Some groups are selected for age, sex and other demographics, depending on the topic to be discussed. Others like the one that recently discussed fast-food packaging, are more wide-ranging.

“Every group is different,” notes Amy Westlund, who works in Berry Plastics’ business development department and leads the company's focus groups. Preparing to lead the group, Westlund traveled to Maryland for several days of training, where she learned how to read body language and ask questions in a way that doesn't influence respondents' answers. If a group's chemistry isn't right, she has learned that getting the members to switch seats can help.

The group’s conversation can often be extremely detailed, which is exactly what Berry Plastics wants. “We don't want to just sell someone another package. We want to design something that makes the consumer experience a little bit more enjoyable," Rowe says. “We want (to learn) the minutiae of their experiences, to be able to design the packaging around it.”

Though some of the discussions can generate crazy, way-out ideas, they also reveal some patterns and preferences that influence Berry Plastics’ decisions.

Berry Plastics, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, films, tapes and coatings, netted sales last year of $4.3 billion, makes more than 5,000 products and has 16,000 employees worldwide, including 2,300 in the Evansville area.