The growth of online retail sales is outpacing the growth of sales at many physical retail locations. According to a recent comScore Inc. report, the ease of check out, product and brand variety, and the ability to create store accounts are all driving this outcome. As a result of this shift to online shopping, the interaction with the product's package may be having less influence on purchasing decisions, leading to the question of how online retail growth can impact product packaging.
Product protection and delivery are essential for online retail. A 2011 white paper released by Shikatani Lacroix analyzed survey results from 1,000 participants and found that online buyers valued the functional benefits of a package (such as ease of opening, readily recyclable and reusable for storage) more than the appearance or branding of the package.
Though the essential role of packaging for online retail does not differ significantly from the conventional on-the-shelf package, there are some differentiating functional demands. Online retail reduces some of the safety and security demands required for in-store packaging, where theft and tampering are common concerns. However, online retail has different security concerns and provides a more profitable and accessible marketplace for the sale and distribution of stolen or counterfeit goods. This may pose an opportunity for packaging or product developments to help verify legitimate products and allow consumers to track their purchases from production through delivery.
Amazon's "Frustration-Free Packaging" is one example that combines the lower security demands while verifying the product's integrity. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Amazon works directly with manufacturers and assembly locations to use packaging that is designed to be easily opened and is also fully recyclable. Additionally, products packaged in this way are ready for shipment, without needing some additional form of secondary packaging.
For shipments that require secondary packaging, there may be a tendency to over-package as a result of unique online shopping baskets. Staples and Packsize are currently working together to address this concern with "Smart-size" packaging efforts to produce on-demand custom-fit delivery boxes. This is meant to reduce warehouse shelf space previously needed to store transport packaging, reduce secondary packaging material (which reduced the average box size by roughly 20 percent) and reduce void fill—realizing a 60 percent reduction in air pillows needed. Custom box sizes also allow more orders per delivery truck resulting in estimated carbon footprint reductions of around 30,000 tons.
Online shopping may also provide a more direct opportunity to recover valuable product and packaging materials. Providing return labels in product shipments can help to deliver high-quality materials to appropriate facilities. This could prove useful to increasing access to recycling and also provide recovery options for materials that are often landfilled or incinerated.
It's unlikely we will see a complete shift away from retail locations and the conventional packaging we use today. The in-store service cannot be met by the online experience. The efforts put into building a brand's reputation and maintaining its relationship with consumers will remain important and will require a certain degree of familiarity to communicate trust.
We are already seeing online retail change the face of packaging in the efforts used by Amazon, Staples, Packsize and many others. As online retail sales become more integrated into consumer shopping behavior, it is likely that we will continue to see packaging developments influenced by online retail.
Author Eric DesRoberts is a project associate for GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For additional information about the SPC, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.