Even before the COVID-19 outbreak pushed online ordering to unanticipated new heights, e-commerce was rapidly gaining ground as a popular alternative to brick-and-mortar shopping. Data cited by AICC, The Independent Packaging Association, indicate that e-commerce sales reached $549 billion in 2019, representing 11% of total U.S. retail. E-commerce’s share of consumer packaged goods volume, moreover, is growing at five times the rate of conventional retail.
Like store merchandise, shipped goods need to be packaged. But, because e-commerce differs from the retail channel in structure and logistics, packages for e-commerce need features that suit them for the different path they follow to their recipients. These features, packaging professionals say, are evolving both practically and creatively as brands and consumers come to expect more of cartons and boxes whose ultimate destination is the doorstep.
Chief among these attributes is toughness in transit. Chuck Slingerland, director of sales and graphic production at Attleboro, Mass.-based corrugated printer Abbott-Action Inc., says that the No. 1 job for a shipping box is to “keep the contact intact, protected, and ready for use” from departure to point of receipt. Speed-to-market objectives have to be fulfilled while assuring the packaged product will arrive “intact to the customer,” says Tim Korte, chief information officer of Bridgeton, Mo.-based corrugated box manufacturer Boxes Inc.
The need stems from the difference between the distribution model of store-based retailing and the fulfilment model of e-commerce.
A Touchy Subject
A package in the retail pipeline goes on a relatively simple journey from the producer to a distribution center and from there, to the store. In e-commerce, on the other hand, the package’s first stop is a fulfillment center that sends it on to a regional distribution center, where the possible next steps are last-mile delivery either by a major freight carrier or a local courier service; or consignment to an area pickup point where the recipient can go to claim it.
A launch kit for Yasso frozen yogurt produced by Abbott-Action. The goals for the project included accurate brand colors and durability. Image courtesy of Abbott-Action.
The fulfillment model has, in other words, more physical touch points where mishandling and accidents can occur. This is why “durability is paramount” for e-commerce packaging, notes Michael M. D’Angelo, president of AICC. It’s all the more necessary, he adds, given that in the fulfillment model, there are no retail stores to take damaged packages out of the pipeline before consumers see them.
“When packages go direct to the purchaser, the design needs to protect the product, while not over-packaging it,” notes Matt Reddington, director of global packaging design at Veritiv, in a written response. He says one way to protect packaging structure during shipping is to right-size the packaging, designing it to withstand the shipping methods of e-commerce fulfillment. “Taking a traditional carton that ships on a pallet and dropping it into an e-commerce supply chain is not typically going to deliver the desired results,” he observes.
Box and carton makers have ways of making the e-commerce journey survivable. At Abbott-Action, says Slingerland, “we ask a lot of questions” about what the package will contain and what the recipient expects of it. Then, “we structure the package accordingly,” guided by the expertise of the company’s team of 12 packaging designers, structural engineers, and testers. The company also holds certifications from the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) and the Amazon Packaging Support and Supplier Network (APASS) for optimized e-commerce packaging.
Nearly every box plant has a lab to test the durability of what it produces, according to D’Angelo. And, their products also come under “the watchful eye of the requirements of the shipping companies,” which have their own rules for the design and performance of packaging in transit.
The Truth About ‘Moment of Truth’
Although durability is indispensable for e-commerce packages, it isn’t the only characteristic they must possess. According to consumer branding and design expert Vicki Strull, a package sent straight to the recipient is, like a retail package, an extension of the brand whose product it contains. She says this means that its color, imagery, typography, and tactile feel “have to match the brand story and the quality of the product inside” for a fully rounded customer experience.
With direct-to-consumer delivery, there’s no exact equivalent of the in-store “moment of truth” in which the look of the package induces the customer to pick it up and buy it. But, that doesn’t mean an e-commerce package still isn’t obliged to make a strong first impression when the customer sees it.
As Reddington explains, “For e-commerce packaging, the ‘attract’ has already happened online. This means two things: first, your customers’ brand and direct-to-consumer strategy must be sound, and second, your ‘engage,’ when that package shows up on their door step, better deliver on that brand promise.”
Strull also challenges the assumption that e-commerce packages don’t have special moments of their own. She explains that even though e-shoppers have already made a choice of product, they still have expectations that must be fulfilled when delivery is taken. “How you experience that package is the moment of truth,” Strull asserts. The quality of the moment “can impact whether or not a brand has gained my trust.”
She also identifies a “second moment of truth” that is unique to e-commerce packaging: “Is it Instagram-worthy? Would I take a selfie with it? Could it be the star of an unboxing video?”
Trends in online buying habits are driving corresponding change in the design and production of e-commerce packaging. As Jason Mueller, senior VP for digital and e-commerce at Mid America Display, a division of Boxes Inc., points out, “graphic flair definitely matters to the consumer” when receiving packages at home.
But, deterring theft might mean toning down the look of the exterior of the box to make it less tempting to porch pirates. Increasingly popular subscription services for clothing and cosmetics favor interior graphics that enhance the unboxing experience. The result, says Mueller, is that “most of the flair in e-commerce is on the inside” of the packages in which online orders are fulfilled.
Reddington says Veritiv also sees why brand communication is shifting from the outside to the inside of the packaging.
“First of all, it enhances the unboxing experience for the consumer,” he notes. “It gives them more chances to engage with and to be surprised and delighted by your brand. The second reason is for security. To ensure the package on the consumer’s doorstep stays on their doorstep, many companies want to keep bragging rights to the inside.”
This inversion of design can have a corresponding effect on manufacturing routines. Slingerland says Abbott-Action made such an adjustment when customers began asking for their corrugated boxes to be constructed with the non-smooth side of the board facing out, to create a high-touch exterior surface. Knowing that corrugated board isn’t delivered to converters in that orientation, Abbott-Action invested in a load turner to flip the sheets and help the plant stay ahead of the demand for inside-out box making.
Enter One-Pass Digital
No matter which side of the box they’re called upon to decorate, converters now have an expanded set of technology options for printing on packaging substrates in full color with high-end graphics.
As the operator of two EFI Nozomi C18000 single-pass inkjet, direct-to-board printers, Mid America is the first company in the world to have installed a pair of the devices. Because of their digital flexibility, says Korte, “you have every opportunity up until we press go” to make late changes to subscription boxes and other variable products.
For bedding maker Boll & Branch, Veritiv designed double-sided, flexo-printed packaging with custom modular inserts, enabling Boll & Branch to switch between three sizes of shipping boxes. Image courtesy of Veritiv.
The 71˝ wide, LED-curing presses were essential to the launch of two new Boxes Inc. businesses: Xceed, serving the market for on-demand, corrugated e-commerce packaging; and Xceed Pro, providing online packaging ordering for brands and agencies. The new ventures also rely on EFI’s MarketDirect PackCentral web-to-pack software and an EFI VUTEk GS3250lx Pro hybrid flatbed/roll-to-roll superwide-format LED inkjet printer.
Abbott-Action committed to single-pass, direct-to-board printing in 2017 by becoming the first U.S. converter to install a Barberán JetMaster 1890, a 74˝ wide digital inkjet system that prints at up to 65 meters (213 feet) per minute. “It is a production machine,” declares Slingerland, praising its ability to render “full-blown, photorealistic graphics” on packaging surfaces. Also in Abbott-Action’s production toolkit is an Apstar HG2 1628 rotary diecutter equipped with top-and-bottom flexo printing units for 5/2 output in one pass.
With the help of solutions like these, personalized e-commerce packaging becomes technically feasible, if not yet commercially compelling. The question, according to D’Angelo, is whether personalizing a shipped package is necessary, given that “the consumer has already made the decision” about ordering the merchandise.
“Many companies want their packaging to be custom and branded, but it’s not always cost-effective.” says Reddington. “One solution is to personalize packaging using custom labels instead of custom-printed boxes to achieve a similar effect.”
Strull thinks consumers will respond to what she calls “personalization without my name on it”: packaging with imagery or decoration that corresponds to the shopper’s purchasing history. A visual demonstration of empathy on a package, she says, “does make the customer feel understood. If it’s used responsibly, it builds up trust.”
Difficult, but Doable
Fulfillment with personalized packaging “is more challenging in the supply chain than you might think,” notes Slingerland. The printing, he claims, “is the easy part”: the diecutting, folding-gluing, and finishing steps would be trickier to keep defect-free when producing in quantity. Managing variable data for personalization may be doable, “but you still have to manufacture that,” Slingerland observes.
Nevertheless, Abbott-Action was able to surmount these challenges in creating marketing launch kits for a new addition to the Yasso line of frozen Greek yogurt desserts. The kits, sent in corrugated cooler packs to retail buyers, industry influencers, and media outlets, included 50 that were digitally printed with the names of the recipients and the organizations they worked for. The entire project was shipped within seven business days of Yasso’s approval of the final artwork, notes Slingerland.
The dry-ice chilled Yasso kits shipped in containers made of corrugated board, a material that has emerged as the substrate of choice for e-commerce packaging. Slingerland points out that corrugated in a variety of flutes is “very obtainable. There is plenty of capacity in the industry.” He also likes it as a medium for graphic design. “It’s a great canvas, because you can apply so many techniques to it.”
Korte agrees that thanks to its durability, versatility, and now, its amenability to direct-to-surface printing, corrugated is ideally suited to the task. D’Angelo highlights another attraction: the fact that corrugated board can be recycled up to eight times before it loses fiber strength. Most consumers in North America have access to recycling streams for the corrugated and paperboard packages they’re receiving from e-commerce sources, he adds.
Recyclability matters to recipients of e-commerce packages, but when it comes to thinking of them as sustainable, so do size and the amount of material used. As Mueller puts it, “Someone doesn’t want to get a lipstick box inside a 20×20˝ RSC (reusable shipping container).” Consumers, observes Strull, will ask whether the size of the delivery box is “congruent” with the product inside, and they will find discrepancies “unsettling” — as if they were being made to pay for the excess.
New Normal of Demand
For all the right reasons, and, regrettably, for an unwelcome one as well, the demand for packaging to facilitate e-commerce appears to have nowhere to go but up.
“With the rise of online shopping, e-commerce will continue to expand,” asserts Reddington. “Everyone wants their order on their doorstep as fast as possible. So to keep up with demand, and deliver efficiently, brands will need to adopt automation to sort, pick, package, palletize and ship as quickly as possible.”
Korte says that anticipation of a continuing increase in demand is what prompted Mid America’s investment in the Nozomi C18000s. He expects the company to continue moving in the direction of digital output as it strives to keep up with the market.
Slingerland, likewise, sees “huge growth potential” in e-commerce packaging for Abbott-Action. He says that the company is equipping itself to supply both start-up businesses that might need only a few hundred boxes and large customers with high-volume demands.
The Barberán JetMaster 1890 at Abbott-Action can run at speeds of up to 213 fpm. Image courtesy of Abbott-Action.
Those, however, are ambitions for normal times. The surge in online ordering in the wake of COVID-19 is an artificial stimulus that the e-commerce channel never wanted or needed, and no supplier to the market can see it vanish quickly enough. But, as D’Angelo points out, “crises tend to accelerate trends,” and the extra exposure that e-commerce has gained from this crisis may ultimately work to its benefit when normalcy returns.
This is because the psychology of buying is changing, asserts Strull. From now on, she believes, people will insist on having a “back stock” of essentials for the next emergency, and delivery via e-commerce is one way they will obtain it.
“People will always want a reserve supply,” she says. “Nobody wants to be caught off guard again.”