Sealed Air Corp., a provider of packaging and hygiene-protection materials, has seen a big change in the role its products play in the marketplace. Vicki Case, vice president of e-commerce and fulfillment solutions, speaks of "message packaging" - the notion that the supposedly mundane exterior of a shipment is not to be underestimated.
This shift in thinking takes advantage of the wealth of information that’s available about a given product today – its ingredients, how and where it was made, how it’s shipped to the buyer. For manufacturers and retailers, the trend is both burden and opportunity, with an emphasis on the latter. Case sees the new focus on packaging as a means for sellers “to understand better their operational targets and objectives.”
Add to the mix the issue of sustainability, wherein customers are increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of both the product and the package that contains it. A company that’s dedicated to sustainable packaging – including the adoption of fewer and more innovative materials – can buff up its brand with fickle consumers, especially under the glare of social media.
Sealed Air is accurately aware of this renewed attention to the value of packaging, thanks to feedback from its own customers. In a recent poll, the company found 66 percent believing that packaging “conveys a value” in terms of brand image. Whereas a seller might previously have concentrated on getting product to the customer’s door quickly and in one piece, today it’s looking for every opportunity to convey the desired message of corporate responsibility.
Consider a massive cardboard box encasing a product that’s a fraction of its size, with the rest of the space filled out by paper or those dreaded Styrofoam peanuts. Independent of how she feels about the product itself, the buyer is likely to carry away a distinctly negative impression about the seller’s commitment to the environment. (As well as complain about the volume of materials that she’s forced to recycle or discard.)
Conversely, a well-thought-out package that conforms to the actual size and makeup of the contents can yield a message, however subtle, that helps to cement customer loyalty. It’s hardly surprising that Sealed Air “is starting to see people using packaging as a way to endear the customer to that brand,” as Case puts it.
Better packaging can also help to boost e-commerce sales overall. Case notes that 80 percent of retail activity is still “walk-up business” in physical stores. For all its obvious convenience, e-commerce carries its own set of drawbacks, including the prospect of shopping-cart abandonment by customers who are frustrated over a lack of product availability, or the difficulties of navigating a particular website. Anything the retailer can do to mitigate a poor purchasing experience on the shipping end can only boost e-commerce sales for all merchandisers.
There’s more to the modern-day packaging game than the materials that make up the box. Case says e-tailers are aiming to trigger customer “delight” through innovative techniques. A package shipped at Christmas time, for example, might contain the subtle scent of balsam. (With hopes that perfume-averse customers won’t be annoyed by that touch.) “You’re trying to create [an experience] in somebody’s home that takes them to the store virtually,” says Case, adding that such efforts are still in their early days.
Of course, the ingredients of a package are not to be discounted. Case says e-tailers are moving toward resin-based boxes as well as more environmentally friendly materials. The trick lies in achieving the right balance between protecting the product and minimizing the size and bulk of the box. “The biggest thing we can do as a company,” says Case, “is make sure that product doesn’t get damaged. It’s a $31bn problem.”
At the same time, consumers are demanding greater visibility of product and packaging lifecycles alike. Nothing has a heavier impact on the environment than a broken item that has to be discarded, then replaced with a duplicate.
For Sealed Air, it all comes down to what the company calls “designing for delivery.” Only recently have shippers begun paying close attention to the implications of delivering product direct to consumers, says Case. In response, her customers are investing heavily in analytics and data management. Their goal is to achieve a better understanding of which items are likely to be shipped to the store versus the buyer’s door – and package accordingly. Designing for delivery, Case says, means packaging the requisite number of items “the right way the first time.”
Pressure from the marketplace for more responsible and appropriate packaging will only grow in the coming years. Only 5 to 10 percent of customers are currently asking Sealed Air for that level of information, says Case. “Within the next two years, I expect a much larger pool to be asking us the same thing.”