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.