How has the rise of ecommerce shaped the future of packaging?

How has the rise of ecommerce shaped the future of packaging?

The accelerated growth of ecommerce since the first lockdown of 2020 has made packaging a far more important and noticeable part of our shopping experiences. This has been a challenge to businesses of all sizes in terms of packaging shortages, delivery methods, wastage, and costs, but there are a number of opportunities for companies to disrupt old norms and take packaging in new, sustainable directions, with potential benefits ranging from product innovation through to customer experiences and retention.





Receiving more deliveries, combined with more time to think about issues like the environment, is fuelling greater demand for sustainable packaging.


In many cases, practicality still rules our choice of online retailer, but make no mistake, the demand is there and the first ecommerce sites to offer greater sustainability (and little or no compromise on quality, convenience and price) have the advantage. The real winners will be those who use packaging creatively to add to customer experiences.


As a marketing agency, we work with a variety of companies and packaging suppliers. We have been vocal eco-supporters for many years, but higher costs and limited options have been a barrier for many businesses in the past, as eco-friendly options and lower prices don’t go hand-in-hand. Covid-19 and lockdown made cost-effectiveness an even greater concern for many companies, but recently we have seen some encouraging changes in the quest for eco-friendly alternatives.


Suppliers are making excellent progress in developing new options, and economies of scale will ultimately come into play. Sustainable materials are at the forefront of packaging development, but that won’t be at the expense of design or function, and the race is on to combine quality, appearance, and cost-effectiveness.



Pandemic Effects


The world of ecommerce is on a high, with online sales shooting up to 68.8% of total UK retail in April 2020 (British Retail Consortium, via Internet Retailing). Pre-lockdown, in April 2019, online retail had been growing steadily and comprised a comfortable 29.7% of the total. There has been a dip with the relaxing of lockdown this year, but in April 2021 ecommerce represented 41.5% of total retail sales.


Shopify places the UK in the top three online marketplaces for 2021 with projected sales of $169.02 billion, behind only China and the USA.


The number of businesses operating online grew considerably over lockdown, so although there is a larger market, there is also far more competition for customers’ attention, and for every click.


Research into global perceptions and attitudes towards sustainability, conducted by IBM in partnership with BRC, showed that, “93% of global respondents say COVID-19 affected their view.”



While ecommerce is driving awareness of packaging and sustainability to a large extent, these preferences aren’t limited to online choices. Companies need to take steps across the board, so in-store packaging and other aspects offer a consistent experience.


Today’s consumers really do care – and that began long before the pandemic. They are paying attention to companies that make an effort, and are likely to stick with those who share their values, both online and offline.



Economies Of Attention


It’s important to note that growth is not only due to more people trying out ecommerce; those who use it are doing so more frequently. As people become more comfortable with ecommerce and place more orders with a wider range of providers, those shoppers are also dealing with exponentially higher volumes of boxes, plastic, padding, labels and tape, so it is on their minds far more often.


Consumers are increasingly aware of how much packaging they are responsible for, as well as its impact on the environment – an aspect that is becoming just as important as prices, customer service, and the state of products when they arrive.



Know Your Audience


As businesses and marketers, we have exciting opportunities to steer changes that will make a real difference and build long-term relationships, as consumers explore what is still a relatively new world. But how far should we go?


Personalisation is another strong trend in today’s marketplace, and the extent and methods of adapting packaging should be tailored to each audience. Much as we would love to go “all-in” right away, each business must decide on the delicate balance between sustainability, cost-effectiveness, customisation, and good business. A thorough understanding of each audience and their unique priorities and requirements will always be the best guide.



Boxing Clever


Businesses that provide sustainable, attractive packaging alternatives at competitive prices will no doubt have the advantage now and in years to come. What was once a mundane must-have, is becoming a valuable tool that can be used to upsell, increase order values, and transform a first-time buyer into a long term customer.



The best use of packaging to build sustainability and engagement will of course depend on the products and audiences, but there are a few questions we should all be asking ourselves:


  • How many ways are there to incorporate recycling and waste reduction into the product lifecycle? Simply having recyclable element or two is not going to stand out.
  • Can consumers return or re-use the packaging, and can this process trigger future interactions with the business and products?
  • Is there a way these activities can also build a community and get people talking (online and/or offline)?
  • People love clever packaging that does more than simply contain the product. What else can the packaging be used for, or can it be part of the product itself?
  • If offering a discount code or special offer to encourage future purchases, is there a creative way to make this part of the packaging, rather than printing yet another page or voucher?
  • How can we encourage consumers to buy sustainably? This could be an incentive to share orders and buy in larger quantities, or perhaps a plan to combine parcels and deliveries with another supplier (and cross-pollinate sales!)


Innovative, sustainable packaging can become a valuable part of a brand story, whether this is done on your website or on the packaging itself. Details of recycled/sustainable materials that have been used will generally be appreciated, as will outlining the company’s commitment to sustainability, but ultimately it’s about values and a genuine commitment to change. If at all possible, make the consumer part of the story, and remind them that we all have an important role to play.

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