If you regularly purchase Arnold bread, a popular supermarket brand, you may have noticed a slight tweak to the product’s packaging last summer. The little plastic clip at the end of the bag—colloquially known as a bread clip or bread tag—was replaced by a twist-tie.
Was this change driven by aesthetics or, perhaps, economics?
Nope. “Our research showed moving to bag ties from clips was a cost-effective way to meet consumer preferences,” says David Margulies, a spokesman for Bimbo Bakeries, the mass-market baker that owns the Arnold brand. “So we made the switch during an equipment upgrade last May.”
This was the latest move in a business war that’s been under way for more than half a century now. It’s a battle fought by the makers of inconspicuous little products that cost a fraction of a penny to produce—the ones that everyone knows and nobody thinks about, but which represent more than an estimated $10 million in annual sales. Insiders describe the turf as the bakery bag closure and reclosure market; this is the battle of the plastic clip vs. the twist-tie.
Even the combatants agree there’s no imminent sign of a clear winner. “We feel, based on surveys we’ve done, that the twist-tie is consumer-preferred, but of course the clip people will tell you the same thing about their product,” says Beth Radloff, marketing specialist for Bedford Industries, a Minnesota-based firm that’s the largest twist-tie manufacturer for the U.S. bakery market. “I think the two methods will always co-exist.”
The bag clip was created by a California inventor named Floyd Paxton, who whittled the first prototype from a piece of plastic while flying home from a business trip in 1952. Paxton soon founded Kwik Lok, based in Yakima, Wash., and still the dominant clip manufacturer today, with plants on four continents. The clips were originally applied by hand to bags of apples, but Kwik Lok began making automated machinery to apply the clips to bakery products in the early 1960s.
Around the same time, Oklahoma-based Burford developed similar machinery to apply twist-ties. Ever since, the two sides—more friendly rivals than sworn enemies—have been jockeying for position. Granted, it isn’t quite Coke vs. Pepsi or Macs vs. PCs, but it’s still a classic case of an entire industry defined by what feels like an eternal, unresolved tug-of-war.
There are no data documenting the two products’ relative market shares in the bakery aisle. Both sides, perhaps unsurprisingly, claim they’re winning. There seems to be general agreement that twist-ties have taken the lead with bread, while clips hold sway with buns, rolls, bagels, and English muffins. There are also pockets of regionalism: Everyone agrees, for example, that the West Coast is clip territory.
All the major players in the category are privately held and declined to disclose sales figures, so here is a bit of plausible extrapolation. U.S. unit sales for packages of bread, rolls, buns, English muffins, and bagels for a recent 52-week period totaled more than 7.2 billion (yes, we still eat a lot of carbs, Dr. Atkins notwithstanding). If we allocate half of those packages to clips, which sell for about $2.15 per thousand, and the other half to twist-ties, which cost about 80 cents per thousand, we’re talking about a $10.6 million market, not counting sales of the machinery that applies the closures. The annual market for the machines is hard to assess: Every set is customized for the client, and it lasts for years. In any case, not bad for a pair of utilitarian doohickeys, right?
The foot soldiers in the middle of all this are the salespeople who try to persuade commercial bakers to install one type of closure-application machinery or the other. One of them is Mitch Lindsey, who’s been selling twist-tie machinery for Burford, the industry leader, for 30 years—long enough to make him a full-throated evangelist for the cause.
“The twist-tie is less expensive, and it gives you a tighter closure, keeping your bread fresher,” he says, launching into a well-practiced and clearly sincere sales pitch. “And the bag is always secure inside the twist-tie. A lot of times you’ll see a bag that isn’t completely inside the plastic clip, and the clip can also damage or cut the bag.”
Lindsey’s competitors beg to differ. Kwik Lok salespeople point out that their machinery is less expensive and runs faster than twist-tie machinery. Clips also offer a printable surface, which can carry prices, sell-by dates, and even 2D bar codes that can direct a consumer to recipes or other promotions. And the clip snaps on and off relatively quickly, while the twist-tie has to be, well, twisted and tied.
Interestingly, that extra bit of labor may actually provide twist-ties with a subliminal advantage among consumers. A few years back, the milk jug industry designed a cap that could be sealed with just a one-quarter turn, but it flopped. “Consumers instinctively didn’t feel like it was sealed well enough, and they wanted to keep turning, so most companies went back to a half-turn,” says Lisa Pierce, executive editor of the trade magazine Packaging Digest. She thinks twist-ties may benefit from that same psychological mechanism.
Or maybe not. Anecdotal evidence from both camps suggests that many consumers are fiercely loyal to one method or the other, often for reasons they can’t explain. “And just as some consumers feel strongly about it, so do the bakery plant managers,” says Rich Zaremba, Kwik Lok’s eastern division sales manager. “In the case of Bimbo and Arnold bread, they just wanted to go in a different direction. Each plant is free to do that, whether it’s plant-indicative or perceived market-driven.” (That “perceived” is a nice little dig, no?)
One thing industry professionals on both sides agree on is the dumbfounded reaction they receive when people learn what line of work they’re in. “I’ll be sitting next to someone on an airplane, and the first comment is always, ‘You make your living out of that one little clip?’” says Hal Miller, Kwik Lok’s vice president of sales.
“Then they think for a second and say, ‘Well, I guess somebody has to make ’em.’”