The role of packaging for products ordered online is very different to its use in store. Tony Corbin looks at how designers and brands are adapting to the unique demands of that sector.
It has almost become a Christmas tradition for the tabloids to run stories along the lines of a member of the public ordering a teaspoon set online only to have it delivered in several large boxes. Clearly this is not the experience of the majority, which is why it’s considered newsworthy. However, excessive packaging is one of the issues being tackled by e-commerce specialists and those stories do at least highlight a sizeable shift towards online shopping that’s being reflected by whole departments at major packaging firms being dedicated to this category.
Supply chain efficiency is absolutely key in this sector and at Packaging Innovations 2017, Amazon discussed its e-commerce fulfilment journey, explaining that products and packs are handled a minimum of 20 times.
Justine Mahler, manager for consumables, softlines and media packaging at Amazon, spelt out the company’s packaging objectives saying: “First and foremost the packaging must protect against damage. We also want to design packs that reduce waste and thirdly we want to enable kerbside recycling where possible. Lastly we want them to be easy to open. There are many things that brand owners currently do not leverage.”
If time saving and space limitations are among those things, Carlton Packaging has developed a solution that addresses both and the Milton Keynes-based firm believes it can truly change the online packing process. Aimed at e-commerce fulfilment operations, Rapisac is a hanging mailing bag system that increases speed due to single handed opening and filling and is immediately accessible without taking up bench/packing space while requiring less physical movement.
Alan Magee, client account manager, Carlton Packaging says: “Guided by clients and market conditions, Rapisac was born as a hanging mailing bag system. It hangs from two clips which are pre-formed in the bags. Fill it, tear it off, seal it, job done. It’s so much quicker, tidier and safer than the traditional bulk pack mailing bags. We can increase speed significantly. For example if you save four seconds per bag through using rapisac, that’s over an hour per thousand bags. If you’re using 50,000 bags a day, that’s 50 hours a day.”
Time and space were also considerations for Antalis when devising its storage service. “Accommodating automated systems is sometimes an issue for clients where space is limited,” says the company’s packaging director David Smith. “ At Antalis, we offer a ‘Just-in-Time’ storage service where essentially we hold packaging products until the customer needs them, creating further space for both automation machinery and/or product stock.
“While it may seem obvious to simply drive down costs at each stage in a supply chain, the key to optimising efficiency actually lies in the overall process,” adds Smith. “The packaging process itself, as well as logistics and distribution, is as important as the materials and suppliers used. It is one thing to get the cheapest price you can on your materials, but if you’re not using the right packaging products and delivery method for the product you’re selling, you could actually be losing money.”
Clearly much thought is going into e-commerce packaging at the moment and how the sector is rapidly changing from the start of the supply chain to the consumer. Matt Crowson, owner of male grooming e-commerce business The Modern Man, feels consumers now demand high standards from e-retailers. “The standard across the board has dramatically increased, in terms of speedy delivery, secure packaging and customer service,” he says. “This has boosted people’s expectations, so they now expect everyone to be delivering the same level of service that a major e-retailer will, along with the customer service you’d expect from a big high street brand.
“Without that face-to-face interaction that you get in a bricks and mortar store, it can be difficult – how can you tell the difference between a great deal and something that’s too good to be true? It all comes down to building brand awareness, delivering a smooth user experience onsite, and ensuring if a customer does order that they’re thrilled when it arrives.”
Rob Carle, e-commerce specialist at DS Smith – of whom The Modern Man is a client – adds: “It’s true to say that trends we’re seeing in the e-commerce industry is about so much more than changing delivery methods. Consumer demands and expectations have moved on so much that we will probably look back at this period and see it as significant as the emergence of the supermarket. There are, of course, challenges with the rapid evolution of the e-commerce marketplace, but there are also great opportunities for businesses who invest in their supply chain to bring about efficiencies and develop sustainable packaging solutions that create a real ‘wow’ factor when they open their online purchase.”
That ‘wow’ factor is an increasingly desirable goal for brands and e-commerce pack designers. Celloglas launched the Mirri Wow Pack, providing bespoke luxury e-commerce packaging, after conversations with some of the UK’s leading luxury brands looking to improve their omni-channel retail experience.
“With the luxury e-commerce market predicted to grow to €70bn (£60.7bn) by 2025, it’s long overdue for luxury retailers to ask themselves: why are only 4% of luxury sales e-commerce?,” says Mark Askham, Mirri development manager at Celloglas. “Consumers are expecting more than the standard brown cardboard box from omni-channel retail now – it really is time to up the ante.
“The Mirri Wow Pack looks like an ordinary brown box from the outside but inside boxes are lined with eye-catching Mirri for a luxurious unboxing experience, which can be created bespoke to the client’s needs. It’s a very flexible offering and clients can then choose any Mirri products to line their box with, from the colourful range of Mirri H to the dazzling Mirri Stardust.”
Rigid Containers believes the growth of the e-commerce sector has huge potential for the corrugated market and an eye catching printed box is now part of increasing brand awareness. Although shopping online cuts out the instore purchasing experience, brands and retailers are using corrugated packaging to find new ways to the give customers that ‘wow’ factor.
Also fuelled by the YouTube ‘unboxing’ phenomenon with images of people unwrapping and opening packages and capturing and uploading the experience on the web, brand owners are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of great e-commerce packaging.
Rigid Containers has launched an inside printed transit packaging concept for increased branding potential. The corrugated cases, which can be printed with brand logos and product information offer the consumer an easy way to access the product while using high quality print inside for visual impact when the box is opened. In addition a plain outer enables the brand owner to visually reduce the temptation of tampering or theft during the logistics chain.
“When a box is printed on the inside it transforms transit corrugated packaging from its image as just a brown box to one that offers luxury and protection,” explains Julian Freeman, group sales and marketing director at Rigid Containers. “E-commerce packaging has to be able interact with the customer at the point of use. If the box is decoratively printed inside it also helps brand owners and e-commerce retailers to visually compensate for any transit damage, soiling or creases that can occur to the outside of the box during the transport process.”
Environmental considerations are also pushing the demand for fibre-based e-commerce packaging solutions. Freeman explains: “Inside printing on corrugated also offers brand owners and retailers a sustainable and easily recyclable way to differentiate themselves while acquiring market share.”
As in all packaging markets, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone working in this sector who isn’t reflecting the public’s eagerness to make more environmentally friendly packaging a priority.
“The packaging industry is under constant scrutiny over the environmental impact of materials,” says Jason Inwood, managing director at Woodway UK, an independent supplier of packaging materials in the UK. “As e-commerce and Click and Collect continue to grow, the green credentials of packaging are increasingly important. Recyclability for consumers is high priority. Woodway’s packaging survey tool, PackRate, found, in 2016, 72% of consumers thought recyclability was important.
“However, the issue isn’t just about whether packaging can be recycled. The quantity of packaging used is also an important consideration. Last year a BBC programme highlighted over-packaging and encouraged people to post photos on social media with #WarOnWaste. The issue facing the industry is finding the balance between too much packaging and too little, which can result in the product being damaged or lost in transit. The negative environmental impact of re-manufacturing a product and resending is considerable. Environmental improvements also need to be balanced with any cost impact. There are a number of automated systems available that can calculate the correct box size and we are seeing more of our customers adopting these.”
In addition to the primary functions of packaging, previously alluded to by Amazon’s Mahler, it can play several more roles in e-commerce as Sukky Jassi, head of the Retail Institute points out: “Packaging design has become the single most important marketing task for many consumer products. There is most definitely a need for the development of packaging for e-commerce and for brands to embrace it as a ‘sensory signature’. A consumer’s experience of a product typically starts with sight leading to touch and other sensory faculties which are also triggered in response. Packaging is also the digital integrator providing the consumer with the link between the digital and physical experience.
“Often overlooked by brand managers, packaging can play a major role in ‘non-conscious priming’, the sensory and environmental factors that give consumers emotional cues on the context and premiumness of their experience. The key concepts in the integrated sensory approach of sensory branding, sensory congruence and sensory experience need to be addressed within e-commerce packaging”.
Woodway’s Inwood sees another potentially beneficial opportunity that packaging presents brands in this sector. “Packaging is also being used as advertising space which can be used as a revenue stream to offset other operating costs,” he explains. “With an estimated 296 million shoppers using e-commerce in Europe during 2016, spending an average of £1,173 over the year, the possible exposure of marketing messages to consumers is vast.”
Further evidence of how much attention is being paid to e-commerce packaging is the emergence of special programmes and courses dedicated to this field. Macfarlane Packaging, distributor of protective packaging materials, last year launched the Macfarlane Packaging Innovation Lab, designed to create solutions for even the most demanding packaging challenges.
Macfarlane Packaging has invested £300,000 in the Milton Keynes facility which first time brings the latest technology under one roof. Customers visiting the Macfarlane Packaging Innovation Lab work with protective packaging experts from Macfarlane and its partners in a uniquely creative environment.
Speaking about the Innovation Lab, Craig Wheeler, e-commerce/retail operations director of Feel Unique, described as Europe’s largest premium online beauty retailer, says: “The online retail environment moves at a terrific pace, so being able to bring even our most demanding packaging challenges to Macfarlane and work with them in one location with access to the latest packaging technology and materials is a major step forward.”
Michelle Street, head of operations and service delivery at The Jewellery Channel, a falling-price auction-style home shopping channel and online retailer specialising in jewellery and gemstones, adds: “The major benefit of the Innovation Lab is that you can visit with all stakeholders and leave with a solution that everyone has had an input in and most importantly, has signed off. This saves weeks of emails and waiting for samples.”
Woodway UK, meanwhile, launched its onsite PackAcademy courses two years ago, focusing on efficient packaging. “Manufacturers are under increasing pressure to produce higher quantities often over shorter lead-times,” says Inwood. “In addition, peak also brings an uplift in temporary workers in fulfilment who often don’t receive sufficient training to pack in the most efficient way. Woodway have been offering onsite PackAcademy training courses to customers for the last two years to help improve this.
It seems like it’s all starting to click for e-commerce packaging. Is over-packaging over? Well, you can probably brace yourself for more of those stories come Christmas but, due to the diligent work being carried out behind the scenes, there’s no doubt that there will be a significantly larger amount of satisfied, and even wowed, online shoppers.
Key challenges for e-commerce
“A key challenge is consumer perception and whilst the term ‘over-packaged’ is frequently used there is a lack of understanding how the carrier network and supply chain works to ensure the product arrives intact. Historically parcel distribution was a B2B operation, and this was reflected in the practices in use at distribution hubs. However, carriers and 3PLs have begun to react to the change of parcel distribution from B2B to a mainly B2C operation. As this change develops, the need for heavy protection of shipped goods should diminish.”
Jason Inwood, managing director, Woodway UK
Supply chain complexities
“More and more e-commerce retailers are turning to the packaging industry to help them with the complexities of the e-commerce supply chain. At DS Smith, we have more than 500 designers who work closely with customers to understand each touch point a package goes through, from packing, distribution and the eventual receipt by the shopper. In the e-commerce supply chain, a box could be handled up to 50 times. We’re very focused on how to support this constantly developing market but collaboration with our customers, just as we did when working with The Modern Man, is crucial to ensuring that we provide innovative solutions that benefit the whole supply cycle.”