The Plight of the Cereal Bag

~ 13 October 2004 ~

Dr. Spock Sugar Smacks

Raise your hand if you’re a cereal eater.

You can put your hands down now.

I’m a huge fan of a hearty bowl of rolled wheat and milk each morning. Strap a feed bag on me and I’ll eat until satiated. Lately I find myself tearing into boxes of Mini Wheats, Frosted Flakes, and long-time favorite Honey Nut Cheerios.

And perhaps “tearing” is the appropriate term. Ever get tired of ripping that hideous plastic inside the box? Ever had it literally explode? Oh yeah. It’s as bad as it sounds. As Brad argues, we even endure “undue stress and induced foul moods because of our efforts to simply open the packaging.”

Well said. Shame on Kellogg.

So why not add a simple zip seal to the plastic bag? A resealable bag? They’re all over the place on other food products. Why not cereal? It ain’t rocket science.

But it may be an issue of economic science.

Try this on for size: Add a zip seal to the bag for a few cents on the dollar and it comes straight out of the bottom line. Multiply that by millions of boxes sold each year and you’ve got yourself a big problem.

UNLESS… Unless it gives competitive edge, which it very well could. And then you’ve got yourself a winner. Meaning, add a zip seal and you just might swoon a few moms in the process.

So you add the zip seal. Moms choose Sugar Smacks over Lucky Charms. Profits increase. And competitive entry inevitably enters the equation.

So competitors add the zip seal. Customers go wild with delight. The entire cereal-consuming market enjoys a much safer world.

But then you’ve got yourself an even bigger problem. Competitive edge is eliminated, and cereal makers are now stuck with increased manufacturing costs. Profits are now less than they were before because gains in volume are eliminated.

Ultimately, cereal makers raise prices to compensate, and we — the innocent consumer — foot the bill for the painless package-opening comfort we’ve always longed for.

What a classic dilemma. Perhaps the cereal makers are a lot smarter than we think.



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1   Kristian Walker ~ 13 October 2004 at 08:56 PM

Malt-O-Meal brand cereals are already doing that. They’re the knock-offs of the major brands and come in plastic bags (no boxes) with zip seals at the top.

My kids eat tons of cereal. I’m more of a bagel guy, but then again, I’m originally from Philly.

2   James ~ 13 October 2004 at 09:04 PM

Damn it Kristian beat me to it. I have been eating malt-o-meal for the longest time. As a college student, you learn to cut corners wherever you can. And I swear that some of the cereals taste nearly identical. Especially the Honey Nut Cheerio’s Honey Nut Toasty O’s.

3   James ~ 13 October 2004 at 09:06 PM

Apparently <del> doesn’t work, the “Honey Nut Cheerio’s” part was supposed to be struckthrough.

4   Cameron Moll ~ 13 October 2004 at 09:11 PM

Alright alright. I give in. I contemplated adding the Malt-O-Meal two cents bit, but it introduces the concept of economy brands and economy pricing. More than I felt like tackling with this discussion.

5   benry ~ 13 October 2004 at 09:44 PM

or maybe were all just stupid for shelling out $3-$7 a box for simple, cheap grains.

6   Jack ~ 13 October 2004 at 09:49 PM

I think Kellogg’s should market their own brand of zip-lock bags that interface cleanly with their existing boxes.

Marketing genius.

7   Jeff Clark ~ 13 October 2004 at 10:19 PM

I don’t think I’ve ever had a pop-tart explode on me…

I’m partial to strawberry, just in case anyone cares.

8   Greg ~ 13 October 2004 at 10:25 PM

Jeff, obviously you’ve never cooked one in the microwave. I used to do that where I worked since there was no toaster. I accidentally set the thing for 1:50 instead of :15, proceeded to use the restroom while it was going, and boom! it was a gooey, burnt mess. I spent an hour cleaning that up.

I prefer brown sugar cinnamon. As for cereal, Honey Nut Cheerio’s rock my world. Sugar smacks are gross.

9   Greg ~ 13 October 2004 at 10:28 PM

Oh, forgot to say something on topic. My mom is a freshness freak and removes the cereal from the bags and puts them in gallon zip-loc bags. I think she’s obsessive, but she’s the one spending money on it, not me.

10   Ryan ~ 13 October 2004 at 10:29 PM

try the maple mini-wheats…hummm maple….

11   Mike D. ~ 13 October 2004 at 10:34 PM

Ah, microeconomic game theory as applied to breakfast foods. Why didn’t they have examples like this in college? I’d have started a zip-seal movement for sure.

12   Martin ~ 14 October 2004 at 01:11 AM

Me? I just use a pair of Safeway scissors… And although I lose the freshness, I don’t end up with cereal in my hair. I go through a box in 3 days, so I suppose freshness isn’t the priority for me!

My favourite cereal? You guys probably haven’t heard of it: ProNutro Wholewheat (Honeymelt) - Homegrown South African. The pack used to say “Probably the most nutritious cereal in the world.” Due to globalization, it now says “Probably the most nutritious cereal in South Africa.”

I think it rules! (and it doesn’t even come with a zip-lock)

13   ray ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:00 AM

You’re all nuts if you ask me. The breakfast of champions is Coke and Doritos.

14   Chris Luebbe ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:08 AM

Interesting that you bring up Sugar Smacks. Have you noticed that they use some sort of papery foil lining? Not the opaque plastic that most every other cereal uses. I think the Smacks’ material is much easier to use when managing freshness.

15   Matt ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:15 AM

By opaque, Chris, I’m sure you mean translucent. And I believe Corn Pops use the same papery-foil, and I agree. Much friendlier.

16   Jared ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:17 AM

Sorry for the semi-off topic comment, but I’d just like to put in a vote for Grape Nuts as the best cereal ever.

(I should also note that I keep mine sealed in a Ziploc bag as well…)

17   Cameron Moll ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:20 AM

Actually, I haven’t eaten Sugar Smacks for years. Maybe it was Spock box that beamed, er, pulled me in… (but I do remember the foil lining, yes)

18   That Guy ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:45 AM

Some great thoughts in this post. I would probably eat cereal more often if there was a zip closure on the top of the bag.

19   erat ~ 14 October 2004 at 07:52 AM

A trip to your local dollar store can result in a set of small bag clips that’ll rid you of your need for ziplock bags. That’s what I use. Works like a charm.

And I agree: Sugar Smacks are gross.

20   benjo ~ 14 October 2004 at 08:08 AM

Well it seems you guys haven’t figured out the conspiracy behind the almost impossible to open muscle straining plastic bags that contain our cereal. You see the big cereal manufactures have a joint venture invested in scissors, yes that’s right. So in an attempt to corner the stock market they have invested in both cereal and scissor manufactures to create this seemingly integrated dilemma where most “moms�? would opt for a pair of scissors to open the bags as apposed to us “men�? tarring them apart like brutes of nature.

They figure most moms feed there children cereal and even if that young lad grows to be a man to eat cereal by then the market share would. So they target there sales towards unsuspecting moms.

I can’t believe you guys didn’t even think of this.

21   Tim ~ 14 October 2004 at 08:49 AM

Actually, there’s a reason that they probably don’t have a ziplock-type bag. I used to work in a grocery store and OreIda, a maker of frozen potato goods, tried switching to having ziplock bags.

Result? Loss in sales. Why? People bought LESS of their product because it stayed fresh longer. Without the ziplock, it would get freezer-burned and stale and people would buy new everytime they wanted it rather than using up the leftover.

I have a suspicion that this is why most cereal companies havent tried this.

22   Steve Hunt ~ 14 October 2004 at 08:51 AM

Well, Kelloggs in the UK have at least made an attempt at the whole ‘pack in the freshness’ thing.

Check out here:

There is of course one problem; despite being a way of keeping the air ‘out’ of the box, it’s ludicrously [sic?] complicated.

You have to tuck the foil underneath Slot A. Slot A and flaps 1 and 2 then need to be tucked under and across the bar of Flap A which then needs to have flaps 2 and 4 folded down across it in order to keep the box closed - (or something).

Seriously, it took me weeks to master. And now I have this weird traingle shape on the top of my box which means I have no way of stacking anything else on top of it. Not even another Corn Flakes box.


23   Jay ~ 14 October 2004 at 09:41 AM

See, if they had a ziploc type thing, then most likely, people would remove the bags and get rid of the boxes, which is where all the branding is. By forcing the box on us, they reinforce their brand by having to look at it everytime we open the cupboard. I also buy the whole planned staleness bit. Just evil enough for my tastes…

24   erica ~ 14 October 2004 at 10:03 AM

a breakfast food i’ve always thought needed a ziplock is bacon. who eats a whole side of bacon for breakfast? you have to rip open that package, take your slices, and when you’re done with it, the only way to re-seal it so you don’t have bacon falling out and hardening is to wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap or foil. seems obvious to ziplock the bacon package.

25   Seth Thomas Rasmussen ~ 14 October 2004 at 10:29 AM

There is no dilemma…

You can currently go buy bags (i.e. not in boxes) of cereal that are resealable. This has been available for years.

The Kellog’s and others don’t bother because it would cost more money for them to add that, as you say, and they know that feature means little to the immense budget they spend on useless bull**** like marketing.

But y’all just eat it up. Savor that pun if you must.

Most of those Malt-O-Meal and like cereals are almost identical to their overpriced-for-suckers counterparts.

What you want is available. The better piece would be on why you decide against it.

26   brian b ~ 14 October 2004 at 11:05 AM

i agree with the theory of if it stays fresh, people will buy less. I know many a times I’ve had frosted flakes or honey nut cheerios or rice krispies treats cereal (aka sugary magic, as it has more sweetness per square inch than pure sugar ever could), and had to go buy a new box because i don’t eat cereal every morning and along comes a week, and the package has unravelled inside (the bag that is, due to my “roll up the top part and close the box technique”) and all of the cereal is stale. so it is a matter of, we add the ziplocs, we lose sales, we leave them off, there is 2x as much waste, but more sales.

one thing to look into, which is what my dad does, is these tall glass or metallic containers that have a rubber seal on them (like old jars), and store your cereal in them.

27   Dave Woodward ~ 14 October 2004 at 11:37 AM

Hmm… well I just buy some Granola in bulk and keep it in a plastic bin. No freshness issues, no branding to deal with, and more importantly, no derned plastic bag.

I was especially upset when the local coffee shop I used to frequent closed down. They were the only coffee shop in town that used blank cups. I suppose I could just bring my own mug to the local shop to avoid their branded cups, but that would be another step, and I’m lazy.

28   Bronwyn ~ 14 October 2004 at 01:10 PM

How to ensure freshness of goods packed in nonreseable bags:
- buy packet of clothespins.
- after pouring cereal/whatever, squeeze air out of top of bag.
- roll over empty portion of bag so that no air can get in.
- clip roll in place with 1 or more clothespins.

It’s cheap, simple, good for the environment, and your budget.

29   John Schroedl ~ 14 October 2004 at 06:54 PM

Is there a substitute Cap’n Crunch? I’d love a cheaper, resealable way to sandpaper the roof of my mouth. mmmm.

30   David ~ 14 October 2004 at 08:24 PM

What is this resealing you all talk about?

When I buy a box of cereal, I make a day of it. I pour it* into my big ol’ cereal cup** and commence eating it. By the end of the day I’ve visited the box several times and it’s all gone by nightfall. Most of the time I don’t even bother closing the bag.

* = I like Fruity Pebbles, Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds, and really just about any other cereal you can name.

** = People who use bowls for cereal are seriously missing out.

31   Charlie ~ 14 October 2004 at 08:58 PM

The extra cost (few cents per bag) of changing over to resealable could be recuperated in the form of coupons on the bag itself. Sure, you ruin a perfectly good resealable bag, but you also get 25 cents off a box of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs that you otherwise never would have purchased. Since Sugar Bombs retail for 3.75 a box, the company takes a .25 hit from your coupon, but again, it’s 1.75 they wouldn’t have made anyway, because were it not for the coupon, you wouldn’t have bought the stuff. Everybody’s happy, especially Ciba Specialty Chemicals!

32   Jon ~ 15 October 2004 at 12:55 AM

You’re all wrong - they’re intentionally keeping the price inflated to direct the market to the cheaper, but higher profit cereal bars.

33   Heath Weaver ~ 15 October 2004 at 09:19 AM


I am at work and should be analyzing computers, but let’s take a crack at cereal.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios 4.49
Malt O Meal Honey & Nut Toasty O’s 3.99
Albertsons Honey Nut Toasted Oats 2.65

Shopping at Albertsons in SD you have a price of 4.49 for 20 oz. I estimate that 50c is for the packaging. Then you have about 2.00 per box for the cereal. You have to take away about 1.00 for marketing and paying fat executives. And 5c for taxes etc, in the end you probably make about 20c in profit per box, which is about 4-6% (and taking into account that the grocery store buys the cereal for probably 50-1.00c less than the selling price. If you look at Albertsons’ price they don’t have to sell it to themselves so they can reduce by this margin).

So add different bags and you will probably add 2c per box sold. Now this is all fine and dandy a couple of thoughts:

Cereal has a pretty good shelf life after being opened, much longer than the two to two and a half weeks which it takes a single person to eat a box of cereal (reduce by family size accordingly). Most consumers are irritated about the crappy seals but it usually won’t be a deterrent for buying the cereal, which will more likely be based on taste, price, brand name in whichever order you choose.

The biggest problem is that any increases in production costs can’t be passed on to the consumer as Consumer Nondurables are very price sensitive. Basically as you can see from the comparison that GM is looking at 50c higher than M-o-m, which is magically priced at 3.99. So basically a 2c increase in packaging just becomes reduced profit. It is very doubtful that the change would have any impact on sales.

Less profit = less executive bonus means best for their pocket worse for our tummy’s (or scissors)

34   oddball ~ 18 October 2004 at 01:58 PM

just for all to know…

take a whiff of your urine after you eat Sugar Smacks. It will taste like… well… Sugar Smacks

35   Jeremy ~ 19 October 2004 at 07:16 AM

I’m a little late to this conversation, but I’ll impart my wisdom (or lack thereof) anyways.

My wife and I could live on cereal. We probably wouldn’t live long considering that we enjoy the really sugary kind with no nutritional value at all. (You’d think that Peanut Butter Toast Crunch, with its “peanut butter”, would have some modest protein). Once we open a box of cereal, we get a big resealable freezer bag, nearly as big as the cheap-o bag the cereal is packaged in first, pour the cereal in the freezer bag, and put it back in the box. We’ve also invested in several tupperware “cereal boxes” that have easy-pour lids. We take our cereal seriously, and we’re still devising strategies for making our cereal-eating experience more efficient and enjoyable.

Of course, I like mixing my cereals together when I put them in the freezer bags. Saves some space, and its one of the few “cooking skills” I’ve retained from my former life as a bachelor. I haven’t found anything better than Peanut Butter Toast Cruch and Reese’s Puffs mixed together. I’m sure I’ll die in a few years eating it, but I’ll enjoy it anyways.


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