The Secrets That Product Packaging Reveals About Retail

“Tuna in a pouch was a huge disrupter,” and other observations from the editor of the trade publication Packaging Digest

A worker pulls items for shipment at an Amazon warehouse in Brieselang, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty)

In the mid-to-late 1800s, shoppers interested in purchasing many everyday products—from flour to crackers to pickles—usually had to ask store attendants to fish what they wanted out of a barrel for them. Customers would then transport their goods home in a cloth sack, a paper bag, or wrapped in paper.

Shortly after the turn of the century, the burgeoning field of marketing brought consumer products out of barrels and into individual jars, cans, tubes, and other containers emblazoned with corporate iconography. “Branding really led the way towards packaging that looks the same in Des Moines as it did in New York City,” says Sean Riley, a spokesperson for the trade group PMMI, which used to stand for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.

Today, as people buy more and more products online, product packaging is again changing, in a way that reflects the differences between digital and physical retail: Anything bought online needs to be able to withstand being shipped individually, often necessitating extra plastic coverings. And on the internet, it’s images of products themselves, not their packaging, that usually show up in search results, which makes the visual appeal of any box or label a lesser concern than it once was.

Lisa Pierce is watching developments like these closely. She is the editor of Packaging Digest, a trade publication, and has been covering product packaging for about 35 years. She says her magazine’s purview is the packaging of “basically any product you can buy in a store.”

I recently talked to Pierce for “Tricks of the Trade,” a series of interviews with the editors of trade publications, and asked her about how online retail is changing product packaging, as well as how much packaging is too much and how she’s seen the industry change over three and a half decades. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: When you walk into a store, what do you notice that you think most people wouldn’t?

Lisa Pierce: There are a couple things. The first is when there’s a new packaging format for a product. I can look at a package on a shelf and pretty much guess how it was packaged. Sometimes that’s where the innovation is: on the production-machinery side of things, not necessarily on the physical-package side of things. For example, dairy beverages are typically sold in the refrigerator section because they’re dairy-based, right? But one company came out with a dairy-based beverage that was shelf-stable, meaning that it did not need refrigeration. Consumers expected dairy to be in the cold section, so they still put it there, but they were able to save immensely on the nonrefrigerated distribution, the shipping of it, because it didn’t need to stay cold.

The other thing I’m a little bit more aware of than some consumers is whether packaging is necessary or excessive. A lot of consumers, they just see layer upon layer of packaging without realizing the reasons behind it. There’s usually always a reason why a product is packaged the way it’s packaged. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good reason, but there’s always a reason.

Take a skin-care product. I’m the right demographic for anti-aging skin-care products—that’s the polite way of putting it. And the majority of them, especially the higher-end products, are usually in a jar or a bottle, and then that is placed into a carton, and that’s how it’s sold. Do we really need the carton? Well, there are a couple of reasons why we really might need that carton: to communicate information a customer would want about the product, to contain an anti-theft tag, to cushion the jar during shipment. Also, when you’re looking at something on a shelf, if it’s round, you’re only seeing a portion of the front, whereas if it’s a square carton, you’re seeing the entire front panel. That has better merchandising—they call it “billboarding.” So overall, you need the carton, but a lot of consumers, they’ll open the carton, take out the jar, and think to themselves, as they’re throwing away the carton, “Why did they do that? All I’m doing is throwing it away.” But there are all those other considerations.

Pinsker: I get what you’re saying, but at the same time, I can think back to a time when I ordered a book online, and it came in this box that was three times the size of the book, and it also had all these packets of sealed air. Am I misunderstanding what the considerations are there, or is that an example of truly superfluous packaging?

Pierce: Well, in that particular instance, that definitely is over-packaging. However, there are things that have happened that will make that a problem of the past. In shipping, there’s something called dimensional weight, also known as “dim weight,” and it is a new pricing standard by UPS, FedEx, and the United States Postal Service, where they measure the size of the package, as well as its weight, to determine how much it’s going to cost to ship—packages that are big are going to cost more. So it’s to the benefit of everyone involved for the packages to be just the right size.

Pinsker: You’ve been following the industry for several decades. What are the most striking differences in how products are packaged between when you started and what you see now?

Pierce: Mostly how the variety and creativity of packaging has changed. We’ve had a lot of new types of packaging come up. Tuna in a pouch was a huge disrupter: You didn’t need a can opener and you didn’t need a spoon, really. With a pouch, you just tear it open and shake the product out. It was portable—you could take it to work with you and open it at your desk.

That was a major one that even the consumer would notice, but there are other ones that are a lot more subtle. In the ‘90s, we saw single-serve plastic bottles of milk, instead of those little cartons that nobody could ever open. That change really captured the on-the-go portability needs of consumers, which wasn’t just about food. Now there are these little nubby things that go on your finger, and you can “brush” your teeth on the go. That trend has continued—people want to be able to carry and consume products wherever, whenever. That’s a big change from when I started covering this. We’re just too busy these days.

Pinsker: Has packaging changed in response to online retail? I would guess that the needs are different when a product is sitting on a shelf, versus appearing in a set of search results. For instance, I just bought a pair of earbuds online, and I was looking at the earbuds themselves when I shopped, not the package they came in.

Pierce: Sure, so in e-commerce the design is not as important for the sale, but I would make the argument that it is still immensely important for the resale—getting a consumer to buy it not once, but twice or three times—because of the impression that the primary pack design has on the consumer when they receive it. But, I have to ask you, when you got those headphones at home, what was the packaging like?

Pinsker: They showed up in a little cardboard box that looked like it could have been on any sort of rack at an electronics store.

Pierce: Did that add to your experience? Or did it not matter to you at all? If you had just gotten the buds in a baggie, would you have been fine with that?

Pinsker: That is a really good question. It’s probably more a question for my subconscious brain than my conscious brain. But my conscious brain says I do not care, and that I would have happily taken whatever—as long as it arrives intact, I am happy with the thing that uses the fewest materials.

Pierce: Most people, I think, would be quite happy with no packaging, if they spent, like, $5.99 on a pair of earbuds. But if you were spending $35.99, I think you might feel like, “Wow, these are pretty cheesy for $35.99.”

Pinsker: So in a way, the packaging kind of becomes part of the product that you’re buying.

Pierce: Yes. Well, it becomes part of the experience.

Pinsker: What other ways has e-commerce influenced product packaging?

Pierce: I have to say, anytime we do an article and we have the word Amazon in the headline, the pageviews just go off the charts. Everybody wants to know, what does Amazon want in packaging?

So obviously Amazon is huge in e-commerce, and they’re being very active now in communicating some of these packaging needs and wants to their product vendors. One thing is the folks at Amazon admit that the aesthetics don’t matter as much when products are being sold online; the way one Amazon manager said it to me was, “Many of the fundamental design features for packaging in traditional retail are far less relevant online.” You know, nobody in the packaging industry wants to hear that the packaging is not important, because we don’t feel that way. But at times, it isn’t. And e-commerce could be one of those times.