It’s about more than just securing the product.
It’s tempting to think that the COVID-19 pandemic single-handedly caused the recent e-commerce boom. After all, Statista says that global online retail traffic reached a record 22 billion monthly visits1 in June 2020, with demand exceptionally high for everyday items like groceries and clothing. But the truth is that there were other catalysts at play long before quarantine became common and COVID-19 lit a match in the powder keg. Namely, the rise of smartphones portended this boom, with mobile visits accounting for almost 70% of all online retail visits worldwide, Statista says, indicating that consumers are increasingly interested in making a purchase without ever setting foot in a store—or even stepping over to their desktop or laptop computer.
Still, many brands found themselves scrambling to establish an online presence and prepare their products for direct-to-consumer shipping during the last year. This spawned questions like: How does my product’s packaging lend itself to small parcel delivery? Is my packaging going to look wasteful to consumers? What does my product look like on a computer screen? Is my packaging even practical anymore?
“E-commerce packaging has its own unique design and logistical considerations,” says Shar Puskala, director of program management and operations at Berlin Packaging (Chicago). First, unlike traditional retail, where products are shipped in cases to the store and only handled as a single unit at the point of sale, an e-commerce package is broken out of that case pack as soon as it hits the warehouse. “It may be handled up to three times more than packaging sold through traditional retail,” says Puskala, “and those additional touchpoints mean more chances for product or package damage.” The most frequent failures are impact and leak resistance for liquids, she says, since bottles are generally well protected in traditional retail but may lay on their sides unsecured with other items in an e-commerce setting. “Therefore, e-commerce packaging needs to be designed to hold up to rigorous conditions and rough treatment,” she says. To that end, Berlin Packaging recently developed the MODA pump, a stylish and durable personal care pump package that’s certified per Amazon protocol to withstand the rigors of e-commerce. This serves as an alternative to double- or even triple-sealing a package to prevent leaks.
Beyond functionality, there are other packaging elements that brands operating in e-commerce need to consider. First, brands need to be mindful of how their packaging graphics look to an online consumer, Puskala says, and graphics need to stand out on a computer monitor, tablet screen, and phone. Increasingly, sustainability is also important to consumers who, thanks to e-commerce, are getting a front row seat to a brand’s packaging that they didn’t get at brick and mortar retail.
“At Berlin Packaging, we look at sustainability from a holistic point of view,” says Puskala. “A good sustainability strategy will consider the environmental footprint for both product and package.” Berlin experts consider material weight, energy use, water use, and emissions, along with material extraction, transport, and processing when determining a sustainable plan. “For example, a thin-walled bottle may be light-weighted, but it may also require a secondary packaging such as a plastic bag or additional tape to keep it safe,” she says, “and those additional secondary materials may not be easily recycled.”
Brian Birch, chief supply chain officer at Netrush (Vancouver, WA), has seen increased interest in post-consumer waste material, so much so that there’s actually a shortage right now. “Beforehand, there was a surplus of material,” he says. “Now, like most items, there is an increased lead time, and the pricing has risen considerably.” Eco-mailers that are 100% recyclable are another popular option, he says, since the unrecyclable bubble layer in traditional mailers was unattractive to brands that all of a sudden had to send out more mailers than ever to shoppers increasingly focused on sustainability. “Recent innovations by multiple brands have found ways to incorporate a liner that is 100% recyclable and uses a variety of different materials such as glue and paperboard,” he adds.
In addition to sustainable alternatives, other packaging innovations are making e-commerce more secure than ever. For example, Birch says innovations in auto-bagging will integrate the packing process so that there is less need for human touches. And, radio-frequency identification (RFID) is increasingly being attached to packaging to provide consumers and professionals along the supply chain with more information than ever. “It’s about investing in the customer experience,” he says.
Rethinking a product’s packaging for seamless shipping is just the beginning. As Puskala points out, online retailers like Amazon charge for parts and labor when extra measures like bagging are required. “With Amazon, if SKUs have not been pre-certified as e-commerce compliant, or repeat damages occur, this may result in steep fees not only to cover parts and labor for securing the packages for safe transit but also to cover for damages due to inadequate packaging design,” she says. And, it’s not just Amazon upping their pricing. Birch says that FedEx also added a charge for poly-mailers soon after the e-commerce spike.
One additional cost brands can’t afford to pay? If a product arrives to the end consumer leaking or broken, it can affect a brand’s reputation, which is priceless.