Shopping Shifts: The Evolution of Packaging during a Pandemic
Vicki Strull is a packaging designer, strategist, and speaker who advises top-tier and emerging
brands on how to leverage the power of print and packaging within opti-channel marketing strategies. She consults with print service providers and OEMs to create new revenue streams and shares her strategies at design, packaging, and print events around the world. Sign up to join fellow trendsetters at vickistrull.com or follow Vicki on Linked In @vickistrull.
As time goes on, things naturally change. When something major happens, like a global pandemic, things change faster. Think about your lifestyle before the pandemic began compared to now.
- How often did you order groceries and retail goods online before the pandemic?
- How often do you order online now?
- Before the pandemic, did you have regularly scheduled deliveries of products like toilet paper, pet food, laundry detergent, etc.?
- How about now?
The acceleration of e-commerce leads to a critical question for brands: how do changing shopping habits and behaviors affect the role of packaging through the eyes—and hands—of the consumer?
The Job of Packaging In-store and Online
Packaging has always needed to perform four fundamental jobs: protect, attract, inform, and delight. But now it needs to achieve these functions both in-store and online.
Although it was steadily changing prior to the pandemic, as shoppers, we primarily interacted with products in a retail environment where we could use all of our senses to experience the textures, shapes, scents, imagery, and colors. It's much easier to gain someone's trust when they can see, touch, hold, and even smell a product.
When designing in-store packaging, we must consider what people notice, how quickly they notice it, and how we can use design and finishing elements to entice them to pick up the product. In-store packaging has an incredibly short window of time to drive shopping behavior. I often say that the average person has an attention span of eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish! But what if I told you that you have even less time to grab a consumer's attention in the store?
A study of consumer interactions found that people spend around two and a half seconds when choosing their cereal. They give a lot more time to olive oil, on which they will spend up to 60 seconds. But what if they always buy the same brand of shampoo? Or chocolate? Would your packaging design be enough to stop them in their tracks and make them reconsider their favorite brand? Whether the consumer is spending 2 seconds or 60, a product's packaging in-store must grab the consumer's attention and differentiate itself on the shelf, and it must do it ‘lightning fast.’
When does the product become mine?
If packaging could talk as we walk down the aisles, it would be screaming "Pick me up! Hold me!" The packaging would be touting its bright, sophisticated color palette, its bling, its shiny and matte textures, its sturdy high-quality substrates, and its soft touch, all with the intention to get your attention so that you reach out and pick it up.
Why is holding the product so crucial to shopping? Studies show that people begin to add value to a product once they hold it and thus are more likely to buy it. So touching and picking up a product is linked to conversion, and that means sales. Did you know that people also feel possessive of the product? Once it is in their hands, they begin to feel ownership even though it has not been purchased yet. This is called psychological ownership and the Endowment Effect. Good design attracts the eye and then makes the fingers itch to touch and hold.
Making the Purchase a 'Done Deal' In-Store
The Endowment Effect only goes so far. If the product or the packaging feels cheap or if the consumer is surprised in any other unpleasant way once they touch or pick up the product, back on the shelf it goes. But if they are delighted and informed by the packaging, they are closer to buying it. Consumers have expectations, whether conscious or subconscious, and packaging must meet or excel those expectations within mere seconds in a retail environment.
Packaging's Role in an E-Commerce Environment
But what happens when shoppers begin buying more and more online and shop in stores less frequently? They cannot touch or hold a product before purchasing it. With people increasingly shopping for products online, what role does packaging play in driving online purchases?
First, the package ensures that the consumer can find the product and brand online. This is called discoverability. Let's use olive oil as an example again. If you were to search online for high-quality olive oil, sure, you could read about olive oil, but inevitably many images are displayed. When searching for images that grab your attention, it’s not the pool of olive oil on a plate that is engaging, but rather a bottle of beautifully labeled olive oil that conveys a sense of eloquence and heritage. Online shoppers are attracted to pleasing imagery of the product, which means that online packaging must be photogenic and consistent with the brand positioning, quality, and promise. When a consumer can't touch a product, the packaging has to work even harder visually to attract a purchase.
Just as packaging must inform and engage us in the retail environment, it must do the same when we are shopping online. Virtual shopping allows us to read reviews, watch videos, and learn more about every product detail. When a package drives us to learn more, it's doing an excellent job of engaging and educating us about the product.
What Happens After Clicking 'Buy'?
Unlike in a retail environment, the test isn't over for the packaging once the purchase is made online. The product has to travel, arrive on your doorstep, and then be opened. Both the shipper and the primary packaging must meet consumer expectations.
- Did the shipper get bent, torn, or damaged in transit?
- Did rain ruin the logo?
- Did it protect the product inside?
And it's still not over! The primary packaging is then examined and considered.
- Is the packaging consistent with the brand?
- Does it meet quality expectations?
- Are there extras such as samples, instructions, promotions to further engage the consumer?
Brands who meet and exceed the challenge will soon find themselves the happy focus of a social media phenomenon: the unboxing video.
Packaging Drives Online Engagement
As humans we are inherently social. One of the greatest stressors during the pandemic was being unable to see friends and family. Not surprisingly, people turned to social media and video calls during the pandemic to fill the hole left by in-person interaction. And brands took notice by creating multi-channel campaigns that featured products and their packaging on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.
Once again, packaging becomes a critical extension of the brand in social media. For example, when showcasing a face cream, brands, influencers, and consumers don’t just show the cream itself; instead they photograph and video the packaging as they praise or review the cream. It is the packaging that is front and center.
Brands, influencers, and delighted consumers are showing everything from the shipper, to the primary and secondary packaging while drawing attention to unique details like tissue paper, labels, and colorful crinkle paper that surrounds the product.
When a shopper sees a product on social media, it may be their first encounter with that brand or product, so it is more important than ever that packaging online reflect the brand sincerely and authentically. Product first impressions matter and they're now happening online more than ever before.
Packaging in a Post-Pandemic World
As shoppers begin to venture out into stores again, brands, marketers, designers, and converters will be paying close attention to how months and months of shopping online has affected shopping behaviors.
- What has changed?
- What remains the same?
- What strategies can we use to continue to drive engagement and sales?
We’ve experienced first-hand, when the world changes, we must change with it. Fortunately, designers and marketers are insightful, converters are agile, and packaging is wonderfully adaptable.
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