Coronavirus-induced e-commerce surge reinforces packaging’s vital role

The current global COVID-19 crisis has changed many things, dramatically influencing consumer shopping habits overnight. Whether tech-savvy or not, remote shopping with delivery, click-&-collect or courier has seen a dramatic upsurge, and reportedly beyond the capability of the incumbent systems. This has forced a remarkable increase in capacity, even beyond that seen at peak times in the run-up to the Seasonal Holidays. Footfall in retail and supermarkets has seen a marked decline, and the need for social distancing has limited the admittance to and flow within these outlets.

A swing to online shopping

Remote shopping, however important and relevant during the pandemic, will have a lasting impact on shopping and the artificially affected balance between in-store and online. I can envisage a dichotomy for how packaging plays a pivotal role in this.

On the one hand, there is a need for packaging to be much more attuned to the digital age. The remote, numb experience of using drop-down menus, searches by product or brands and the rather aseptic view of a packaged product on an innocuous background will drive the need for packaging design to be much more recognizable and distinctive remotely. Shape and color will need to be more attuned and graphic elements must stand out in order to attract consumer attention. The moment of truth is a click on “Add to basket.” The collation and delivery of packaged products are often randomized with dissimilar format shapes and materials and tend to have a more arduous journey to the consumer. This will necessitate format and material choices to withstand the dynamics of this supply chain, invariably more durable.

On the other hand, packaging exists in the “real world” and “real people” interact with it when they shop. The typical surroundings are crowded, noisy and competitive and can be cluttered and dirty. It is a very tactile and intense environment, where packaging’s role is to distinguish the product on the busy and competitive shelf. Shape, color and graphical assets work together to drive differentiation and recognition, working for that tacit moment of truth where you reach out, touch and take it. It is also personal how you then pack and pay for these products to get them back in good order: bags, boxes and baskets to the ready.

Packaging for the evolving marketplace

I believe that shopping habits and methods will become more polarized because of the COVID-19 crisis. Many in-store shoppers will switch to the ease and convenience of e-commerce having now experienced its benefits. In contrast, online shoppers, to a lesser extent, will desire a more tactile and engaging experience when shopping. For those who choose to use both, I can see a swing to online shopping, as operating remotely is increasingly becoming the norm.

What is the role of packaging in this fast-evolving market place? Traditional shopping is declining and e-commerce is becoming part of the day-to-day fabric. Functionally, we will still need what packaging provides. However, as purchasing decisions are made on images, does the product need to be exactly the same as the image shown? Would we buy a product because we like the imagery but what arrives at our door is a plain functional pack? Would we trust what is inside?

Packaging still has a crucial role to play in delivering safe, quality goods to consumers. Packaging in many ways conveys trust in the way it feels, the way it works and especially on the way it looks and the information that is carried on it. No matter how we acquire packaged goods, the packaging itself is arguably as important as the product within. We must keep packaging in tune with the evolving marketplace to ensure its value is exercised fully both in-store and online.

Mike Swain, MD and Founder of Pack IDS Ltd

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