Online, Retail

How the boring brown box on your doorstep became an object of desire

Online retailers are giving the humble cardboard box an extreme makeover, transforming a four-sided receptacle for delivering goods into the new shopping bag.

Out: brown, plain, boring.

In: neon colors, ornate lettering, glossy surfaces and geometric stenciling that looks like modern art.

By trying to replicate the delight and status jolt of in-person shopping – walking around New York with a Bloomingdale’s bag once signaled affluence – online retailers trying to break through the Amazon juggernaut are turning front doorsteps into new branding canvases.

As one box veteran puts it, “Every box tells a story.”

And the story often does not end with box cutters. Recipients post photos, videos and reviews online of the coolest boxes. Some re-purpose their boxes to store makeup, watches or even fishing lures. Others hang boxes on their walls, with dioramas inside.

“You all are going to be horrified,” one commenter wrote in an online discussion on a site that reviews boxes (such a thing really does exist), “but I just recycle them.”

This is the best of times for boxes. For decades, a stagnating economy and shift away from manufacturing flattened sales of corrugated and paperboard boxes. But in 2013, sales rebounded and have kept climbing, thanks to an improving economy and, analysts say, a fundamental shift in shopping habits.

Box sales are growing about 3 percent a year and will rise to nearly $40 billion in 2018, according to Katie Wieser, an analyst with the Freedonia Group, a market research firm. But boxes for e-commerce are growing even faster, at 4 percent. Amazon is thought to be the biggest customer, shipping nearly 5 billion packages a year.

(Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, runs Amazon and commands its boxes.)

Amazon, in keeping its shipping process lean and cheap, is mostly utilitarian in box design – brown, with the company logo – though it did produce yellow boxes with smiling Minions to promote the movie about the little yellow helpers. The real action in box innovation is taking place among online retailers who specialize in monthly subscription services selling, among other things, makeup, jewelry, razors, underwear, socks, dresses, gluten-free snacks, dog snacks, Paleo diet snacks, snacks from Japan, sex toys, stationary and topsoil.

Birchbox, which offers makeup and men’s grooming supplies, ships boxes decorated with flowers, bright neons and abstract designs. Graze, a healthy snack service, uses the underside of the lid for paintings of scrumptious fruits. Loot Crate, which ships a monthly assortment of gaming and pop culture gizmos, has included scannable codes that play video clips on smartphones.

Box advocates are proud of what is happening in the industry. Earlier this summer, the Paper and Packaging Board, an industry-funded organization formed by the federal government to stem paper declines, held a box summit in New York for executives from several subscription box companies to discuss, as the invitation put it, how “the next step in the evolution of subscription boxes and e-commerce is packaging innovation.”

Jalem Getz, the founder of Wantable, which sends a monthly package of women’s designer clothing hand-selected by personal stylists, spoke about the dual role of his company’s starkly white and smooth boxes, with a solid “W” on the lid.

“The box,” he said, “is an ad unit that travels to the customer.”

Neighbors see it on doorsteps or in recycle bins. Co-workers spot the boxes around the office, shipped to employees ignoring the no-personal-packages-please edict from human resources. That’s one part. This is the other, he said:”The box is a reminder of why she shopped with us, and it’s an exciting moment to open the box.”

Shelly Huang, head of U.S. marketing for Graze, echoed Getz.

“We are building customer affinity to the brand,” she said. “It’s not just a snack.”

Companies such as Loot Crate, Wantable and Graze represent two worlds colliding – tech and manufacturing. Most subscription-box companies are founded by technology entrepreneurs seeking a slice of the $1 trillion market in e-commerce.

And while most of these entrepreneurs pride themselves on thinking outside the box, what’s needed for the box itself is a mystery.

That is where another group of box entrepreneurs come in – the box outsourcers. Started by box-industry veterans or ex-Web coders who become self-taught box gurus, these third-party companies are a one-stop shop for design and manufacturing.

Dennis Salazar, a longtime executive in the box industry, started Salazar Packaging in the Chicago area about 10 years ago, hoping to help companies build their brands with environmentally conscious packaging. When the e-retailing took off, Salazar sensed an incredible opportunity.

“They are trying to create the shopping experience at home, but that’s difficult to do,” Salazar said. “We were in a great position to help them understand boxes.”

Salazar provides, as his company’s tagline puts it, “packaging that communicates” – design expertise, material selection and production: everything. His clients include Harry’s, one of the largest online sellers of shaving products for men. And his sales have grown more than 20 percent for four straight years.

Miriam Brafman comes at the business from the other direction. A former engineer and web designer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Brafman had a fascination with product packaging. A couple of years ago, Brafman wanted to design a box with her own graphic design, but when she looked into custom box companies, she found many still stuck in the offline era.

Brafman, now 25, created Packlane, a Silicon Valley online point-and-click service for designing and ordering boxes. Her customers have included Baltimore in a Box, which ships food from Charm City, and Bullymake, a subscription service for dog chew toys.

“Boxes are really fascinating business,” she said. “It’s one of those industries that people think is really boring, but that’s because they don’t know anything about it. The more you learn about it, the more interesting it is.”

For instance, typing “#boxreview” or “#unboxing” into Instagram reveals a strange incongruity of the digital age – boxes are Internet icons. People take selfies with boxes. They post videos of themselves opening their boxes. They post things like: “My @lookfantastic box has arrived!! This month is all about BEST OF BRITISH. Can’t wait to open this gorgeous box xx.”

There are even box review websites.

A reviewer at offered this observation about a Birchbox delivery: “It’s also bright, beautiful and downright pretty. This month’s box had very such bright colors and a fun geometric design.”

The reviewer could not wait for the next shipment.

“I know that I will love everything in that box,” the review said, “down to the creative box design!”

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