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People say packaging's important

I used to think my life moved at a reasonably brisk pace, but that was before consumer consultant Mona Doyle came to visit. An hour's interview with her on the kind of packaging consumers are demanding at the supermarket left me feeling I must be a lady of leisure.

Are you concerned about the extra time it takes to grasp a toothpaste tube in one hand and twist off the cap with the other. I'm not, I'm afraid.

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''But today's consumer doesn't have time for a two-handed toothpaste tube!'' Ms. Doyle exclaims. ''Today's consumer wants something like this.'' She produces a national brand of toothpaste packaged in a stand-up dispenser with a little lever not unlike that of the old-fashioned backyard water pump. ''With this, you just go bang, and that's it.''

She demonstrates. Her exuberance is curbed somewhat by a desire not to adorn with dentifrice the venerable oaken table at which we are sitting. The blue gel comes forth with a discreet little splurt.

''The demands for convenience and speed are the driving forces'' in today's supermarkets, Ms. Doyle says. Almost the only constant is the humble brown kraft paper bag. ''Food companies are doing more than just traditional market research. They're actually going out and listening.'' What they're hearing is consumer demand for:

* The simplest packaging possible. ''Look at a carton of yogurt. You pull the top off, eat the yogurt, and then you throw it away. To a generation that grew up with yogurt packaged like this, a can that you have to open with a can opener is just too complicated.''

* Individual servings. She notes that some companies are marketing individual packages of cereal not in assortments but loose, so that those who want half a dozen servings of cornflakes can buy six little boxes, and not get stuck with two or three other cereals they don't want.

The new ''paper cans,'' about the size of individual boxes of cereal, typically used for packaging fruit juices, are one of the hottest things around, the Philadelphia-based consultant says. Parents like to be able to give their kids one of these, instead of getting them going on a big bottle of juice, which they are likely to keep drinking until they finish it. Neatly defined individual servings also appeal to dieters.

* Resealable packaging where individual servings are not appropriate. Traditional big cereal boxes draw Ms. Doyle's particular wrath. They are not easily resealable, and don't fit well in most cupboards. ''Eight out of 10 consumers despise them. They are designed as billboards - to attract maximum attention on the shelf.''

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