Before the COVID-19 pandemic, e-commerce was seen as a function of convenience: tap on a keyboard or phone and new shoes arrive at the door.
The panorama shifted amid the pandemic. Existing e-commerce trends accelerated and gained added significance. Packages had to be safe and worthy but also provide an attention-getting social media snapshot—with some packaging experiences becoming video fodder on social media channels. The flexible packing industry took notice, as wide swaths of products became ripe for growth in this new e-commerce model.
Daniel Staker, executive vice president of Kansas City, Kansas-based Plastic Packaging Technologies, LLC, suggests that discussions of e-commerce should include a definition of it, which means “so many different things to different people.”
“When we think about e-commerce, we’re thinking about not just a shift from the brick-and-mortar model to online, but we’re also thinking about technology to make the whole supply chain better,” Staker says. “We’re talking about digitization of packaging, how supply chains run, how inventories are taken, and how you’re interacting with the consumer.”
As the pandemic raged, the intersection of technology and e-commerce offered opportunities for packaging to enhance the emotional connection between consumers and their deliveries beyond the core requirements of product safety and security. Unboxing became a YouTube sensation, creating room for theatricals and stand-out packaging tied to the product’s story. Luxury goods, especially, are leveraging e-commerce to deliver a “wow” factor—such as watch brand Festina’s delivery of its waterproof diver’s watch in a water-filled plastic pouch. “It’s like Christmas Day,” Staker says. “If you open the packaging and it’s generic packaging, it’s not going to have the same sort of impact on the consumer.”
Multiple initiatives are underway to enhance the unboxing experience, says Jonathan Quinn, e-commerce market manager for NOVA Chemicals, Inc., based in Calgary. Pregis LLC’s Inspyre protective packaging, which dedicates some proceeds for global water filtration, serves two purposes, he notes. “The consumer is provided an Instagrammable unboxing experience through eye-catching, blue-tinted, hybrid inflatable cushion material, and knowledge from a printed card insert that the purchase they made supported people having access to clean drinking water,” he says.
Enhancing Delivery And Safety
While those dynamics offer opportunities to think creatively, the core issue of product protection remains at the center of the tasks ahead. Ask consumers about their e-commerce complaints and 30% bristle at the damage to contents or packaging, second only to overly long waits for delivery. That finding presents “a real challenge—given the rising volumes of online packaging in circulation—not to be compromised, to arrive safely, be fit for purpose, and protect brand equity for that important unboxing experience with sustainability addressed, too,” says Rosemarie Downey, global head of packaging research at Euromonitor International.
As e-commerce and retail shelf presence overlap, designs must continue to focus on puncture resistance, handling, and consumer use. “Every product needs to be e-commerce-ready going forward,” says Staker. “That means designing with a different mindset.”
And with the spotlight that the pandemic put on product safety and hygiene, “the package has a really important job to do,” Staker notes. “What we know today is that people want to feel healthy. They want to feel safe.”
Through materials, construction, and technology, packaging must not only be tamper-proof and protective but also visibly touchless, he adds. Flexible packaging can assure consumers that other shoppers haven’t handled the items they’re about to buy.
The heightened demand of 2020 for sanitizing and cleaning products “will create additional and ongoing demand for packaging and dispensing closures in the medium term, both for personal at-home use and for on-the-go use, extending to commercial premises that are working to ensure clean, COVID-secure, safe environments for employees and consumers alike,” Downey says.
Quinn agrees that the safety habits consumers built in 2020 “will not fade away as soon as a vaccine has been widely administered. Consumer concern for ‘what if’ there is another COVID-19-like pandemic will remain for many months, if not years, to come.”
Concerns about sustainability will remain top of mind for both the industry and consumers, as well. Since 2011, the rate of global consumers worried about climate change has risen from 55% to 65%. Increasingly, consumers want to see packaging that is recyclable, biodegradable, and refillable or reusable.
“R&D investment priorities remain on sustainable packaging advancement,” Downey says. That includes aligning with corporate and regional climate neutrality and net-zero carbon status pledges.
One charge for flexible packaging is to build strategic partnerships to reduce secondary, tertiary, and extra packaging, “which is waste in consumer’s eyes,” Staker says. Perhaps such formats as box pouches could be designed and fabricated to meet supply-chain needs and eliminate secondary packaging.
“There is a sustainable mandate coming out of this pandemic,” Staker adds. “Consumers are tired of getting the box within the box within the box within the box. It’s really a call to action within our industry to solve this issue.”
Convenience, safety, and hygiene “will remain king for the foreseeable future,” predicts Quinn, but “no package should be considered single-use. We must continue to work toward a future where all packaging is recyclable, consumers understand the value of post-use plastics and have access to recycling, and then the materials are recycled and reincorporated into new packaging and goods.”
The key to accelerating the circular plastics economy, he adds, “is partnership and collaboration across the entire supply chain. Recyclers, suppliers, converters, brand owners, governments—and even competitors—must unite for the greater good.”
As e-commerce changes purchasing habits and supply chains, flexible packaging has the agility to adapt and contribute, Staker says.
“For us, it’s about industry leadership as it relates to new products and technology and film innovation,” he adds. “It’s about being a leader and a voice in the industry within various markets that give our customers the confidence to believe that we can solve their problems.”
Flexible packaging often offers the most sustainable packaging option for e-commerce, Quinn says. Wine and spirits offer transformative possibilities in bag-in-box and other fitmented pouches. Even footwear is ripe for innovation. “There is no need for a box of shoes to be put in another box with void fill,” Quinn says. “Opaque shrink film around the primary box will provide protection and conceal the contents. This reduces the shipment of air and the package weight while helping to eliminate box rage, which we have all experienced.”
Flexible packaging must embrace technology, such as the Digimarc barcode that tracks packaging and helps sort materials for recycling, Staker says. “We already have the solutions from a film and material perspective,” he says. “But it takes a cooperative and very effective supply chain working together in concert to put together solutions that truly work for the consumer.”
Incorporating barcode technology into packaging also enables “wow” factor aspects that are driving e-commerce. Packages move more speedily to their destinations, and when they arrive, consumers can scan the barcode for recipes, wine pairings, or other bonuses.
“It’s a great way to further build out the benefits of e-commerce with flexible packaging,” says Staker, whose Plastic Packaging Technologies is aligning its investment strategy accordingly.
In a constantly changing atmosphere, a commitment to investing in fundamentals leaves flexible packaging agile enough to respond as needs—and crises—arise in the marketplace.
“I don’t know that we always know exactly where growth is coming from,” Staker says. “We just know that flexibles is a great place to be, and we’re going to continue to make investments and solve our customers’ problems as they relate to packaging and supply chain. And if we solve those problems, we’re going to be successful.”
M. Diane McCormick is a freelance writer and editor based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Sidebar: Euromonitor International Tracks Trends
Through a series of newsletters since the start of the pandemic, Euromonitor International has studied the shifts in e-commerce and notes developments of particular interest to the packaging industry.
“E-commerce was already on a growth trajectory before coronavirus,” says Rosemarie Downey, global head of packaging research at Euromonitor International. But the surge of disruptors fueled e-commerce and created fruitful territory for packaging. Euromonitor’s report “The New Normal: Identifying the Markets Most Primed for Sustained E-Commerce Growth” found:
- a double-digit increase in e-commerce included growth across a broad range of products;
- e-commerce markets in developed and emerging regions can grow by $77.7 billion; and
- e-commerce growth opportunities exist across sectors, from the underutilized—such as alcoholic drinks—to the well-established—such as apparel.
In this reshaped future, packaging can serve consumers in three ways: improve hygiene and safety, create environmental sustainability, and get “e-commerce ready,” with packaging that improves shipping and delivery while offering an exciting unboxing experience.
“For the packaging industry, it’s important to know that the shift to e-commerce is expected to last, so plan for this with your customers,” Downey says.
Another briefing from Euromonitor—“New Frontiers in Packaging Technology”—notes that “COVID-19 represents a game changer for the packaging industry.” Concerns over viral contamination are advancing packaging safety and hygiene technology. And although single-use plastics were pandemic anchors, consumer demand for sustainability is “here to stay,” the briefing notes.
As Downey puts it, e-commerce packaging “needs to be robust, durable, and leak-proof, given the additional e-commerce touchpoints before reaching the consumer, so products arrive safely yet are resource-efficient and importantly square with being sustainable, too.”
In e-commerce, the appeal must project across digital devices if products are going to make their way into consumers’ homes. As Euromonitor reported in its November 2020 strategy briefing, “Where and How Consumers Shop,” consumers used smartphones at higher rates than computers for their e-commerce shopping—even though many were at home during the pandemic.
With an additional 55 million smartphones expected to be purchased globally by 2024, expectations will be higher for more functionality and technology in design. In that realm, active packaging that delivers more than product protection, such as links to recipes or food-safety information, will be in demand.
As e-commerce scales up, Euromonitor sees current and future opportunities for packaging designs optimized for e-commerce distribution, even including mailbox-friendly designs seen already for gifting flowers or wine bottles, or home care concentrates and pod packaging.