Chicago — While the electronic commerce boom is rapidly changing the way consumers shop — who would have ever thought about buying ketchup through the mail 20 years ago? — there is less certainty about how that will ultimately impact plastic packaging design.
The explosion of e-commerce means consumers are having more merchandise shipped directly to their front doors. Or maybe to the side, by the garage, where boxes might be less likely to be stolen.
Berry Global Group Inc., the plastics packaging giant, uses more than 300 million pounds of resin each year just to make caps and closures. And that's just a fraction of the company's varied business.
The sturdiness of caps and closures and their ability to withstand the rigors of shipping are big questions facing the entire industry.
But Berry is not yet seeing a direct push to create e-commerce-specific packaging for their customers' products. Not yet anyway.
"We're not really being challenged to meet e-commerce-specific packaging," said Todd Faubion, vice president of applications development at Berry Global. "But it's coming. It's coming."
While, historically, packaging designers have had to consider factors such as shelf space and presentation, now consumer packaged goods companies must begin mulling over packaging considerations for shipments made directly to customers instead of stores.
According to a panel of Berry Global officials at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2017 conference in Chicago, it is really yet to be determined if consumers will feel differently about a product if it comes in different packaging designed specifically for shipping via the likes of FedEx, UPS or the U.S. mail.
Packaging with caps and closures these days will often be fortified with some type of tape to help ensure the product survives shipment to the consumer intact. Those considerations are not necessary when products are shipped in bulk, often in cardboard containers, to retailers before being placed on shelves.
There is talk about designing more robust closures to survive individual shipments as well as changing packaging design to better fit the geometry of shipping boxes. But with those potential changes also comes the possibility that consumers could turn away from a more utilitarian design. Or they could embrace the product even more.
"I don't think it's been determined how the consumer feels about it. Does the consumer feel better or worse about the package when they open the box when it's not as aesthetically pleasing as it is on the shelf? Is there really a difference there?" asked Mark Deutsch, a director of applications development focused on closures, tubes and jars at Berry Global.
"Does it really matter? I don't think that's been determined yet," he said.
Faubion sees the potential future of consumers buying a product at the retail level and then ordering refills in different packaging via e-commerce.
Keeping a close eye on market trends is important to Berry, Faubion said, as materials typically account for 50 percent or more of the company's product manufacturing cost.
"We're always keen to be very frugal with where we put material. But the part always has to function. There's no compromise in the functionality of the part," he said.
Deutsch said the process to meet the needs of the e-commerce market is challenging.
"There's a lot of learning that goes on with e-commerce yet because e-commerce is still evolving. I think everybody feels like we're pretty far into it, but yet it's still kind of in its infancy. We're continuously monitoring that and evaluating closures to improve standards on those," Deutsch said.
"But, really, that's all we feel we can do at this point is continue to monitor and evaluate and move into the next generation of packages and take that into heavy consideration as we go forward," Deutsch said.
Dan Bloom, a director of applications development for the food, beverage and spirits closures at Berry Global, said the focus on package design will evolve.
"We talk about when we make changes to the package formats about the shelf spaces out there in retail and trying to make sure that we fit into that retail space that they have for that product," he said at the conference sponsored by Plastics News.
"I think in the future we'll be talking about how we fit into the Amazon shipping box size that they ship out to the consumer," Bloom said.