Chicago — The challenge, to a large degree these days, is finding ways to successfully deliver goods packaged for retail sale through e-commerce channels.
Taping down lids. Cushioning fragile containers. Using a right-sized box to not waste shipping space.
Product packages designed to look good and stand out in brick-and-mortar stores are not always easy to ship around the country and around the world.
But Jonathan Quinn, market development manager for Nova Chemicals Inc., sees a time in the not-too-distant future where that paradigm will shift.
Instead of companies worrying about the durability of retail packaging during shipping, the new challenge will be how to effectively display packaging optimized for e-commerce in the traditional retail environment.
That challenge, he said, is "finding that package that's been designed and developed to go through the rigors and challenges of e-commerce, but it's still going to meet that shelf appeal and those aesthetics."
"The challenge is how do you do one without sacrificing the other," Quinn said during a Nova Chemicals-sponsored workshop held in conjunction the Plastics Caps & Closures 2018 conference in Chicago. The conference was organized by Plastics News.
"That's where an evolution of design packaging improvements [come in]. And, overall, when you look at packaging as a whole, for years and years, there hasn't been any monumental shifts," he said.
Quinn, based at Nova's U.S. headquarters near Pittsburgh, expects packaging changes to come relatively quickly considering the growing use of e-commerce.
"It's going to be fast," he said. "Within the next three to five years, that's where we are going to really see a lot."
And with the ever-increasing number of companies committing to packaging sustainability goals, "that's going to play a role in this packaging optimization in e-commerce as well," Quinn said.
Flexible packaging, already a growing segment, will play a larger role in finding a balance between traditional retail and e-commerce needs, Quinn believes.
Advancements in flexible packaging design will allow for an effective retail presence along with a protective e-commerce solution, Quinn added.
"E-commerce is revolutionizing the products that we buy," he said.
Brand owners ultimately will select packaging that will serve both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce customers as a matter of practicality, Quinn said.
Companies already have too many product offerings — called stock keeping units, or SKUs — to manage. They do not want to add even more by creating separate packaging for each sales channel, he said.
Peter Apostoluk is a packaging engineering manager at Millipore Sigma, a life science company that's part of drug giant Merck. He also is a former employee at Amazon.
He said more is being expected out of packaging as products ordered through the internet can be subject to additional handling compared with a product shipped to a store and then taken off the shelf by a customer.
The e-commerce world involves many more touch points, requiring that packaging be more robust to withstand the rigors, including picking from bins, movement along conveyor belts, boxing, shipment and delivery.
"You are expecting a lot more out of that individual consumer package. A lot more than you ever have," Apostoluk said. "I look at it as what we've learned in industrial packaging over the years is now translated to the consumer."
Quinn said, "E-commerce is creating the 'end of up.' Packaging has always been designed to be vertical. But, now, e-commerce is creating this scenario that all packaging has to perform in a 360-degree sense."
Apostoluk believes that packaging structural designs will change to become more robust to adapt to the evolving markets.
"The industry really needs a primary container standard. That really doesn't exist today," he said.
Retail packaging, to a large degree, still relies on outer packaging for protection during shipment.
Amazon, as part of the changing packaging landscape, is putting more emphasis on packaging that is classified as SIOC — ships in own container. This eliminates the need for outer shipping containers to protect products during transit.
Quinn said brand owners need to design their packaging for delivery and not rely on others to provide additional protective packaging during shipment. It's a matter of brand reputation.
"Take control of your brand and your packaging. The reason why that's so important is because at the end of the day, if there is an issue with the product sent to the consumer via Amazon, they are going to contact the brand. The brand is what's going to be tarnished, not Amazon," Quinn said.
"That's where the brands have to really step up and really improve the overall functionality and performance of all packaging to support that brand if they are going to be selling through Amazon," he said.