In the mid-1800s, buyers interested in purchasing many everyday products—pickle cracker flour– usually had to ask store employees to fish whatever they wanted from a barrel for them. Customers then transported their goods home in a cloth bag, paper bag or wrapped in paper.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the burgeoning field of marketing took consumer products out of barrels and put them in individual jars, cans, tubes, and other containers emblazoned with the iconography of the business. “Branding has really paved the way for packaging that looks the same in Des Moines as it does in New York,” says Sean Riley, spokesperson for the PMMI business group, who previously represented the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.
Today, as people buy more and more products online, product packaging is changing again, in a way that reflects the differences between digital and physical retail: whatever is bought online. line must be able to withstand being shipped individually, which often requires additional plastic liners. And on the Internet, it’s the images of the products themselves, not the packaging, that typically show up in search results, making the visual appeal of a box or label less of a concern than before.
Lisa Pierce is keeping a close eye on developments like these. She is the editor of Packaging condensate, a trade publication, and has been covering product packaging for approximately 35 years. She says her magazine’s area of expertise is the packaging of “basically any product you can buy in a store”.
I recently spoke to Pierce for “Tricks of the Trade,” a series of interviews with trade publishers, and asked him how online retail is changing the packaging of products, as well as the quantity. too much packaging and how she saw the industry evolving in three and a half decades. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: When you walk into a store, what do you notice that most people wouldn’t notice?
Lisa Pierce: There are a few things. The first is when there is a new packaging format for a product. I can look at a package on a shelf and guess roughly how it was packed. Sometimes that’s where the innovation is: on the production machine side, not necessarily on the physical packaging side. For example, dairy drinks are usually sold in the refrigerator section because they are made from dairy products, right? But one company released a dairy drink that was shelf stable, meaning it didn’t need refrigeration. Consumers expected dairy products to be in the cold section, so they always put them there, but they were able to save tremendously on non-refrigerated distribution, shipping, as they didn’t need to stay cold.
The other thing that I’m a little more aware of than some consumers is whether the packaging is necessary or excessive. Many consumers simply see layers of packaging without understanding the reasons. There is usually always a reason why a product is packaged the way it is packaged. Sometimes that’s not necessarily a good reason, but there is always a reason.
Take a skin care product. I’m the right demographic for anti aging skin care products, that’s the polite way to put it. And the majority of them, especially the high-end products, are usually in a jar or a bottle, and then they are put in a carton, and that’s how they are sold. Do we really need the cardboard? Well, there are several reasons why we might really need this carton: to communicate the information a customer would want about the product, to contain an anti-theft tag, to protect the jar during shipping. Also, when you look at something on a shelf, if it’s round, you only see part of the front, whereas if it’s square cardboard, you see the entire front panel. This has better merchandising – they call it “display”. So overall you need the box, but a lot of consumers, they open the box, take the jar out and say, throwing the box away, “Why did they do that?” All I do is throw it away. But there are all these other considerations.
Pinsker: I understand what you are saying, but at the same time I remember a time when I ordered a book online, and it came in this box which was three times the size of the book, and there was also all those sealed air packs. Am I misunderstanding what the considerations are there, or is this an example of really superfluous packaging?
Pierce: Well, in this particular case it’s definitely overpack. However, there are things that have happened that will make this a problem of the past. In shipping, there is something called dimensional weight, also known as “low weight”, and this is a new standard for pricing by UPS, FedEx, and the United States Postal Service, where they measure the size of the package, along with its weight, to determine how much it will cost to ship — packages that are large will cost more. It is therefore in the best interests of everyone involved that the packages are the right size.
Pinsker: You have followed the industry for several decades. What are the most striking differences in the way products are packaged between when you started and what you see now?
Pierce: Especially how the variety and creativity of packaging has changed. We had a lot of new types of packaging. The tuna in a pocket was a huge disruptor: you didn’t need a can opener and you didn’t need a spoon, really. With a pouch, just tear it up and shake the product. It was portable, you could take it with you and open it at your desk.
This was a major problem that even the consumer would notice, but there are others that are much more subtle. In the 90s, we saw single-use plastic milk bottles, instead of those little cartons that no one could ever open. This change really took into account the portability needs of consumers on the go, which weren’t just about food. Now, there are these crude little things that go on your finger, and you can “brush” your teeth on the go. This trend has continued: people want to be able to transport and consume products anywhere, anytime. It’s a big change since I started covering this. We’re just too busy these days.
Pinsker: Has the packaging changed in response to online retailing? I guess the needs are different when a product sits on a shelf and shows up in a search result set. For example, I just bought a pair of headphones online and was looking at the headphones themselves when I shopped, not the packaging they arrived in.
Pierce: Of course, so in ecommerce design isn’t as important for selling, but I would say it’s still extremely important for reselling – getting a consumer to buy not one, but two or three. times – because of the impression that the design of the primary packaging has on the consumer when they receive it. But, I have to ask you, when you got these headphones at home, what did the packaging look like?
Pinsker: They showed up in a small cardboard box that looked like it could have been on any type of rack in an electronics store.
Pierce: Did this add to your experience? Or did you not care at all? If you had just put the heads in a bag, would that have been okay with you?
Pinsker: That’s a very good question. This is probably more of a question for my subconscious brain than my conscious brain. But my conscious brain says I don’t care, and that I would gladly have taken anything – as long as it arrives intact, I’m happy with the thing that uses the least material.
Pierce: Most people, I think, would be very happy without the packaging if they spent, say, $ 5.99 on a pair of headphones. But if you spent $ 35.99, I think you might be like, “Wow, that’s pretty cheesy for $ 35.99. “
Pinsker: So in a way, the packaging kind of becomes a part of the product that you buy.
Pierce: Yes. Well that’s part of the to live.
Pinsker: In what other ways has e-commerce influenced product packaging?
Pierce: I must say that every time we do an article and we have the word Amazon in the title, the page views come off the charts. Everyone wants to know, what does Amazon want when it comes to packaging?
So obviously Amazon is huge in e-commerce, and now they’re very active in communicating some of these packaging needs and wants to their product suppliers. One thing is that the folks at Amazon admit that aesthetics don’t matter as much when products are sold online; the way an Amazon manager told me was: “Many of the design features fundamental to packaging in traditional retail are much less relevant online. You know, nobody in the packaging industry wants to hear that packaging isn’t important, because we don’t think that way. But sometimes that is not the case. And e-commerce could be one of those times.