The Retail vs. E-tail Packaging Challenge

Posted on Jul 10, 2019 by

I love the word roil – four letters that convey the turbulence generated by stirring things up and an apt way to describe the conflicting demands of product packaging in the rapidly evolving retail and e-commerce environments. Even using the term “product packaging” evades a clear-cut definition as consumer packaging becomes divided into two differing working segments, each requiring its own specifications. With an immense amount being written on the various distribution methodologies and channels, the question is often raised, “do I need different packaging for online versus in-store use?”

In truth, there are two answers. First (as always), your packaging is a representation of your brand, and as such requires consistency and continuity in all of its representations, wherever it is put to work. Second – in most applications, yes, you probably do need different structural packaging for online versus in-store use. The rigors of containment, protection, and shipping have a much higher potential of delivering damaged goods to the consumer, so the type of packaging has to be different, and in most cases involves printing on a variety of substrates.

So where do you start as a packaging designer? As in any traditional packaging assignment, you begin by establishing a brand and visual design system supporting the brand. The branding and design system together with: the number of total SKUs and associated structural details in your packaging mix; a clear understanding of the environments your product will dwell in; a solid comprehension of competitive forces at work in your markets; and insights from consumer testing, result in a package design that quickly and easily connects with the consumer. Whether the package is round, rectangular, a tube, tub or corrugate, creating a solution requires that in all cases, the brand is represented with the same integrity, imagery, and consistent color.

Shelf presence along with advertising and marketing strategies encourage both initial trial and repeat use that results in brand loyalty. One of the best advantages “on shelf” provides is the immediacy of picking up a product and making a purchase decision based on what you hold in your hand.

As you are developing your initial brand and visual designs, if one of your distribution channels is online or direct-to-consumer, an experienced creative team can anticipate how it will modify the brand and design standards so when they are applied to potentially different structural or shipping material (usually some type of box) the brand retains the same integrity and impact. Think of it as a stair step process – design for on shelf, possible structural change for e-commerce, containment package to support structurally altered product, and secondary and tertiary packaging to ship the resulting material. 

In the end, is this any different from what the current packaging design process includes?  Not really. Right now as you develop your brand and graphics standards for packaging, you give consideration to adapting those standards for case sales, bundle packages, shelf pre-packaged containers, corrugated boxes for palletizing/shipping, display graphics for in-store display, as well as materials for advertising and marketing for all of the above. It is a comprehensive view of brand and visual design as opposed to an isolated single application – and considered as a comprehensive whole, helps to identify potential issues that may impact branding and/or the visual design for packaging.

With the unprecedented growth of online shopping for a wide variety of products, serious challenges exist when it comes to successfully building a brand and integrating effective packaging across all channels. Hopefully, you have resolved those issues before you undertake the packaging design for your products. Prior to starting on the creative and development process, you need to have a clear road map detailing all channels you are marketing through and the distribution limitations accompanying each. It is the designers’ responsibility to ensure the brand and its associated visual cues will work in all defined outlets and will stand up in all print applications. 

Ultimately, the expectation of branding and packaging design remains uniform in its demand – crisp, clear, visually compelling work that engages consumer attention in 5 seconds or less. If anything has changed, it is that creative teams have to work beyond simply creating a “pretty brand”. If brand and visual design standards cannot be reproduced in their appropriate environment with the same integrity, clarity, and impact of concept files, you are not meeting the creative objective. The new creative mandate should be to ensure the visual branding objectives are met in all channels the packaging will pass through – and marketing teams should expect nothing less. 

Creativity and design capability is a critical part of the performance criteria of your package design team, however, now more than ever, your team needs to have a much deeper understanding of how the designs they create will perform in a “macro sense” across all channels – from the vantage of the consumer as well as of the cost. Avoiding costly rework and potential compromises in the final brand image should be fundamental to the creative and design process, and key to presenting effective package designs for e-tail and retail.

If you need help with your product packaging to ensure it is effective across all channels, contact us at 920-886-7727 or  Throughout our 60 plus years of supporting customers with consumer brands large and small, we apply our experience and expertise to the entire process to create efficient and effective solutions.