The Changing Face of eCommerce Packaging

John Weedon, Managing Director of the Weedon Group, considers developing technologies and new trends in eCommerce packaging.

The rapid growth in online retail since the start of the COVID pandemic has brought massive change to the eCommerce packaging industry, and not just in terms of the volume of packaging produced. More significantly, online retailers are now requiring their packaging to provide much more bang for their bucks! So the nature of eCommerce packaging is changing too. Packaging for online retail is no longer simply a means of protecting a product in transit, though even that aspect of packaging has become more complex. Retailers are beginning to recognise that their choice of packaging can impact everything from shipping costs to the customer experience, from brand development to the sustainability of the planet!

Today, the eCommerce packaging industry is facing several key challenges. Let’s look at some of the key trends which are emerging as a result .

Perhaps one of the most significant developments is the swing away from plastic to more sustainable materials. The message is getting through that corrugated cardboard offers a flexible, environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic packaging. The introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax in April this year will add a further incentive to UK retailers to switch to paper-based packaging. So demand for corrugated cardboard eCommerce packaging is rising – at the same time as there is a global paper shortage.

Although the shortage of paper in 2021 proved a serious challenge (which is not completely over yet!) and it pushed up the price of cardboard packaging, on the plus side, it has given the industry a welcome nudge towards being more materials-efficient. Designers are looking for more innovative ways to safely reduce the amount of corrugated cardboard in their packaging, which is good news for the environment as well as our customers’ wallets.

Packaging reduction
Tied up with the whole sustainability agenda is the recognition that optimising the design of packaging can reduce the amount of materials required, which has environmental as well as financial implications. Putting it simply, packaging is getting smaller – because smaller means lighter, which is cheaper to post. Smaller also means less materials consumed in making the packaging, which is more sustainable.

So packaging companies are having to rethink their packaging design. Good packaging designers can reduce the layers of packaging through clever structural engineering and using the right materials. They can reduce the weight of the corrugated board used, without compromising performance. And they can make sure their packaging fits the product without space or void fill – a process called right-sizing, which we in the Weedon Group have been pioneering for several years. As an added plus, packaging specifically designed to fit the contents is more durable.

One of the side effects of the substitution of alternative board weights with different properties is the growth in testing facilities. Customers need reassurance that new lighter or cheaper boards will still provide sufficient protection before bulk production gets underway, so we, like many other packaging manufacturers, have invested to enhance our in-house testing facilities.

Ease of assembly
If a company is packing and shipping thousands of packages, labour can be a sizeable cost. The packaging used must therefore be quick to put together. For example, as part of our ePac range of specialist eCommerce packaging, we have introduced a box that we have nicknamed Dave, which is super-quick to assemble – considerably faster than crashlock boxes – and easy to close, with peel & seal tape top and bottom.

If, however, a retailer is shipping many different items, generic, flexible packaging may be a practical solution. For this situation, we have introduced Flexie-mailer, our eco-friendly, flexible alternative to one-trip plastic. Clever design means the same packaging can expand from envelope to pop-up mailer to accommodate items of different sizes. So Flexie-mailers are suitable for sending or posting anything from documents to a host of awkwardly shaped products.

In both these cases, innovative structural design is the key factor. Packaging for eCommerce does not necessarily have to fulfil all the functions of traditional retail packaging. Instead it should meet the specific needs of online retail. Dave, for instance, includes multiple additional features to suit the needs of online retail including a flat top and bottom, which provides a good surface for attaching labels, makes it easy to use on roller-veyors and increases stability when stacking on pallets.

Easy opening
With a significant proportion of online orders being returned, the opportunity to reuse the original packaging for the return journey is an important environmental consideration. The design of the packaging and the judicial use of self-seal and ripper-tape strips make for easy opening and means the product can be repackaged securely and conveniently, if necessary.

Experience when opening the package
Perhaps the biggest challenge affecting potential growth in the eCommerce packaging industry is the need to compete with the High Street shopping experience. External brown packaging effectively disguises the value of the goods during transit, but the unboxing experience can leave a lot to be desired!

Manufacturers are looking increasingly at how they can add the Wow! factor to eCommerce packaging. With top quality printing and an eye-catching design inside the box, retailers can go some way towards replicating the in-store experience at the front door. With developments in digital printing technology there is scope too to personalise small runs of packaging for eCommerce retailers, for example, for marketing offers or competitions. Printing inside the box also offers valuable opportunities for marketing – it can advertise products or reinforce a brand message – something to which online retailers, without a physical shop window, will need to pay more attention. I would expect the customisation of eCommerce packaging to become one of the key growth trends in 2022.

Shopping patterns have swung towards eCommerce because, with the imposition of COVID restrictions on shopping in-store, it became an urgent necessity. But COVID probably only accelerated a trend which was already there. Online shopping is here to stay now – for its convenience, and the demand for eCommerce packaging is predicted only to rise. If retailers are to maximise the impact they make on their customers, minimise the cost of shipping and help safeguard the planet, we can expect to see further exciting developments in the design of eCommerce packaging over the coming year.

Plant Based Packaging

Weedon Group plant based packaging and displays

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