It may come as no surprise to you that e-commerce sales grew during 2020. But just how dramatic that increase was may blow you away, with a rise of 83 percent from April to June alone. Online grocery sales, which is an important subset of e-commerce (particularly for packaging) grew a whopping 110 percent. Experts predict that by 2025, more than 20 percent of grocery sales will occur online.
Are you part of the e-commerce growth? Let’s take a quick assessment: how often did you order retail goods and groceries online prior to the pandemic? Once every few months? Monthly? Once a week? (For me, it was monthly). Now, how often did you order online during the pandemic? (For me, it became daily.) And how much are you ordering online now?
“The acceleration of e-commerce leads to a critical consideration for brands: how does this change in shopping behavior affect the role of packaging?”
The acceleration of e-commerce leads to a critical consideration for brands: how does this significant change in shopping behavior affect the role of packaging through the eyes of the consumer?
Packaging’s role in-store and online
Prior to the pandemic, when I spoke or wrote about packaging through the eyes of the consumer, I was primarily talking about interacting with products in person, in a retail environment, where we can see them, touch them and experience them, versus packaging and its role in an e-commerce environment. Designing in-store packaging takes into consideration what consumers notice, how quickly they notice it, and what packaging elements entice people to pick it up.
A primary consideration is that in-store packaging has a very short amount of time to drive shopping behavior. You may have heard me quote the statistic that the average person has an attention span of eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish! For many product purchases, it’s even shorter: a study of consumer interactions in the cereal aisle found that on average, people spend two and a half seconds choosing their cereal. The same study showed that people will spend up to 60 seconds in the aisle choosing their olive oil. Whether we spend two seconds or 60, a product’s packaging in-store must quickly differentiate itself on the shelf.
Designers do a lot of things to achieve that differentiation: vibrant colors, captivating imagery, white space, embellishments, high-quality substrates, et. al. The goal of the package is to scream to us from the shelf, so that we will choose that brand, that product and pick it up. Studies show that once a person holds a product in their hands, they begin to add value to it and thus are more likely to buy it.
So those are some of the ways we think of packaging design through the consumer’s eye in an in-store environment.
However, with people increasingly shopping for products in an e-commerce environment, what role must packaging play in connecting with consumers and driving purchases online? First, the package has to ensure that the product and brand are discoverable. Discoverability is how we find a product online, and packaging does matter.
There are two leading ways that products and brands are discoverable online. First, through search engines like Google. When I Google something, what pops up? Imagery pops up – imagery of the package, not necessarily the product itself (i.e. the bottle or packaging of the olive oil, not the olive oil itself). As online shoppers, we are attracted to that imagery. Packaging online, therefore, must be highly photogenic and consistent with the brand image, quality and credibility.
“When I Google something, what pops up? Imagery of the package, not necessarily the product itself. Packaging online, therefore, must be highly photogenic and consistent with the brand image, quality and credibility”
Of course, another way that packaging is discoverable online is through social media. Most brands’ multi-channel campaigns include posting products and their packaging on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. But it’s not just brands that are posting that content, it’s consumers. Ordinary people like you and me (and our kids) are posting images of products that we use, that we love, and that we’re excited about. We’re sharing them in our stories, we’re recommending them to friends and followers. And a focal point of our content is about the packaging. We’re literally showing everything from the outer box to the product container – whether that’s a flexible pouch, corrugated box, can, bottle, clamshell – we’re posting the ‘unboxing experience’ that spotlights the packaging and design details.
Therefore, the role of packaging online, now more than ever, must reflect the brand quality, brand personality, and consumer perception. Because when you see a product on a friend’s social media, something you didn’t search for, it may be your first encounter with that brand or product – before you ever get to see it face-to-face as you would on the retail shelf.
Engage and delight
One of the other roles of packaging is to engage us. Earlier I mentioned packaging design elements such as substrates and embellishments. These may include tactile effects, imagery, finishes, as well as size and shape. These elements are designed to entice us to pick up and hold a product; to engage with it beyond the store shelf. Online packaging has to do the same thing; only because we can’t hold it, it has to entice us to learn more about the product and add it to our cart. That’s one of the great things (or not, depending on your ability to resist a rabbit-hole) about e-commerce shopping: we have the ability to spend time reading or watching videos that describe a product’s details, reviews, ingredients, uses and more. If a package drives us to learn more, it’s doing an excellent job of engaging us.
And finally, the job of the packaging is to delight us. In the store, we want to be so delighted that we assign a certain value to the product – enough to decide to buy it and take it home. When we shop online, the packaging must do the same thing, and even more. Once our online order arrives on our doorstep, the outer and inner packaging must be everything we expected, and consumers’ expectations are high. They judge a product by both the outer and inner packaging. The outer box is the first impression: did it get bent or torn in transit? Did rain ruin the logo? Did it protect the product inside?
Once opened, is the product packaging consistent with the brand? Does it meet the quality expectations of the product itself? Are there extras such as samples, instructions, promotions? Today’s brands are meeting the challenge. The unboxing experience has become a front-runner of content marketing, both by brands and consumers. Brands want consumers to be so delighted with the packaging that they share it online again and again.
So those are the primary roles of product packaging through the eyes of the consumer. When brands view and create packaging from this perspective, they gain consumer trust, credibility, and value, while building brand loyalty and fans.
On a more granular level, brands and designers also spend time understanding and identifying the various types of shoppers, which then informs the packaging design. Are you targeting a new shopper? A repeat shopper? Are you trying to acquire a new age group, like an example from Jif?
In a recent consumer strategy, Jif wanted to attract millennials. So they developed a limited edition campaign, where they partnered with GIPHY and humorously spotlighted the age-old pronunciation debate: Is it Jif (with a soft ‘g’) or Gif (with a hard ‘g’)? You can see that the packaging itself was designed to attract the specific demographic.
Another way brands identify their customers is geographically. For example, you’ve seen limited edition packaging that reflects different cities’ sports teams, on everything from beer to soft drinks to candy and snacks. Mountain Dew ran a campaign with a limited edition label for every single state, along with a sweepstakes that encouraged people to collect all 50 labels. Consumers took to social media and took pride in their state’s packaging; the game-like engagement acquired new customers and repeat sales.
These are just a few of the packaging trends that emerged during the pandemic and in recent months. As we go back into stores, brands, designers and converters are paying close attention to which trends become true strategies that continue to drive revenue, consumer engagement, consumer-driven content and more. Because in addition to the role of packaging, we’re also talking about our role; our ability to consult with our customers (brands) and provide the latest and best advice regarding what their packaging needs to achieve online and in store.