News & Views

Opinion / Packaging at the Etail crossroads

by Contagious Contributor
Will Merrill, designer at Seymourpowell, explores the opportunities for packaging afforded by e-commerce

Odds are you’ve never heard of Phil Brandenberger, but the transaction he made one summer’s day in 1994 is often cited as being the genesis of online shopping. An encrypted message containing his credit card details left a workstation in Philadelphia and arrived in New Hampshire paving the way for secure online retail; a sector forecast to be worth $1.922 trillion in 2016.

With more and more people turning to e-tail for their day to day shopping we’re noticing a power shift from retailer to consumer and it’s starting to gain some serious momentum. This was highlighted in our own trend report from last year on the emerging attitudes and behaviours of Generation Z; ‘As the communication technology becomes reliable, widespread and far-reaching, they are aspired to be untethered and flexible in both work and play. They are expecting brands and services to revolve around their increasingly fluid lifestyle. Convenience and flexible on-the-go services and products are key.’

Some of the more innovative companies are experimenting with exciting new ways to fulfil these emerging needs. Although Amazon Air’s proposed fleet of drones might seem a little too ‘blue-sky’ to solve the desire for near-instant delivery, others are taking a much more grounded approach. In October 2015, Uber graduated its Uber Rush pilot from an experiment to a business. The 2014 Uber Rush trial let users hail a courier from the company’s app, as you would a regular Uber taxi, and track the approaching delivery. ‘We used to wait two to three hours for a delivery to start,’ said Olivier Plusquellec, co-founder of New York City florist Ode à la Rose, which was featured on the Uber Rush website. ‘With Uber Rush, now it’s five or ten minutes.’ This gives the end consumer far greater flexibility when making a purchase. No more curtain twitching at home, praying the postman arrives within the hour slot, organised a couple days before.

Even retail behemoths are starting to act. With the impending sale of Argos to Sainsbury’s and the recent tie-up between Morrison’s and Amazon, they have made a bold statement in how they envision the retail, and logistics, of every day household items. ‘In the “multi-channel” age, speed and ease of delivery are retailers’ best weapons.’

But what does this mean for packaging? A great deal actually. Traditionally, graphic and structure design have been leveraged by brands as a method for driving sales in-store, but what happens when brands can’t rely on a disruptive silhouette and emotive imagery to create strong shelf stand out (as there are no physical shelves for it to stand on?). Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying traditional brick and mortar stores are dead, far from it (There’s a reason why Amazon opened its first physical store in Seattle late last year). However, we imagine a divergence of products, with new formats emerging specifically tailored to online retail. Convenience is king and efficient logistics become crucial.

For this emerging retail stream, brands will need to refocus their efforts, and this will inevitably involve big investments in time and capital. However, this should also be seen as an opportunity. With a stack of obsolete limitations (shelf height etc.) brands can shift their focus to try and engage with their consumers in new and exciting ways, and with consumers’ first contact with the physical product outside the traditional store, brands can make stronger emotional connections with the consumer at home.

Where this gets really exciting is when it starts to give greater meaning to the myriad of ‘smart packaging’ technologies emerging. Stora Enso and NXP Semiconductors are currently collaborating on integrating RFID and NFC technology into fibre board based packaging while Thinfilm’s OpenSense™ technology (above) is able to sense a “sealed” or “open” state of a package, bottle or container with the simple tap of a smartphone. Although currently limited by the lack of supporting infrastructure, we are at the precipice of an ‘Internet of Things’ insurgency. In a world where packaging is inherently smart and knows where and what it is, efficiency can go hand in hand with flexibility. Your fridge will have already ordered that replacement milk you forgot to buy and now desperately require – because it’s 1 A.M and that third bowl of cereal’s not going to eat itself.

There should also be benefits for the environment too. When efficient transportation and delivery are the backbone of your business model, lightweight and/or reusable solutions will become the norm. Plus, greater transparency in a product’s lifecycle and a more robust infrastructure means brands can take back control of inevitable packaging waste and close the loop of the currently fragile ‘take, make and dispose’ economic model.
But back to Phil Brandenberger in 1994; what symbolic item did he select to mark such a significant turning point in the way we shop? Sting’s fourth studio album: Ten Summoner’s Tales. It’s a shame he didn’t have the prescience to choose something more momentous.