The Great Unboxing

February 11, 2022

The advent of packaging goes back thousands of years, stemming from the need to store and transport food and water. Both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese used packaging in this way. The former would blow glass to make containers for food and water, while the latter used mulberry bark to wrap their foods. As they honed the ability to make paper, they used it to pack teas, medicine and foods – potentially the earliest form of flexible packaging.

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, where the prevalent method of packaging involved wooden barrels and crates. They were rigid but not fragile, could keep food and water from open contamination and were strong enough to hold valuables – all of which was important considering the vast Medieval trade routes network.

The next major evolution in packaging occurred with the First Industrial Revolution, with which came the cardboard box and tin can. While excellent inventions that are still used today, cardboard boxes and tin cans were not affordable commodities back then. Other than being used for packaging food and water, they were reserved for luxury goods - quite the contrast to today, where our grocery stores are brimming with both.

Over the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions there were numerous advancements and innovations made within the packaging industry. In fact, it was during this period that it became an actual "industry." Paper bags came along in 1852, followed by cartons in 1879, cereal boxes in 1906, cellophane in 1908, then plastic wrap in 1933. During the Post-War era, the creation of bubble, pop tabs and plastic bottles occurred.

The Evolution of the Packaging Experience

Think about the difference between today’s cereal boxes and those of yesteryear. Whether it’s on a box or a flexible bag, today’s cereal packages are more friendly to the environment, boast bright colors, simple, crisp designs and touchable finishes. They also feature symbols/icons, many of which are governed by special category-based regulations – like the preservation or recycling process. Some even feature interactive print elements.

Touch is critical for consumers. As humans, we like to hold things in our hands – it can trigger or influence emotions and is proven to provide the strongest sensory recall. Bridging the physical world through which we feel, with the digital world in which we increasingly rely upon, has unshackled CPG brands.

For example, General Mills recently launched two new cereals. To help promote them, they partnered with 8th Wall and Eyekandy to create an AR mini-game to feature on the new box. This evolution of cereal packaging speaks to a larger advancement in the industry as a whole - an evolution accelerated by a pandemic that fueled the forces of change within the packaging industry.

Brands are recognizing that interactive print improves their customers’ experiences – and ultimately attracts more business. For example, 19 Crimes created an app that brings their wine bottles to life via AR. They recently added rapper and entrepreneur, Snoop Dogg, who shares stories of how he achieved his success – available by simply scanning the bottle label with their app.

Another example is Hershey’s use of QR codes on product packages. The code redirects consumers to a landing page that lists ingredients, allergens and an option to contact a representative.

Ynvisible Interactive and tech firm Innoscentia are partnering in an effort to create interactive food labels that can detect spoiled food, which would significantly reduce the amount of food that is wasted. Increasingly, this kind of transparency and open communication between brand and consumer is expected across all channels.

Unboxing – The Packaging Phenomenon

In 2014, Amazon delivered 20 million packages. In 2020, the number skyrocketed to 4.2 billion. According to Modern Retail, Amazon now ships more parcels than FedEx. One reason for this has been the explosion of online/e-commerce storefronts. In 2018, an estimated 7 million online stores existed, whereas in 2021 there are an estimated 12 to 24 million, according to Digital in the Round.

More online stores means more parcels shipped – and more brands that need packaging. And not just any old "need to ship the product" box – but brand-showcasing packaging that leaves a lasting impression for the unboxer.

Social media plays a big part in online shopping behavior; almost 75% have made online purchases after watching a video on social media. Did you know that the amount of time people have spent watching unboxing videos just on their phones is the equivalent of watching the holiday classic "Love Actually" more than 20 million times? Type in #unboxing on Instagram and over 700,000 posts pop up. Head over to YouTube and choose from nearly 90 million videos of boxes being opened.

Technology – Powering Change Within the Packaging Industry

Advances in technology, along with changes in consumer needs and behaviors, has shifted the ways in which packaging is not only produced, but how it’s used to market and present products.

According to Statista, roughly 70% of consumers alter their buying decisions based on climate change concerns. The packaging industry, in response, has adapted. Increasingly, packaging is utilizing sustainable materials, and brands are searching for ways to create increasingly eco-friendly packaging. For example, Mars Wrigley recently partnered with a scientific firm to develop biodegradable candy wrappers.

Industry 4.0 – widespread use and advancement of technology, increased interconnectivity and advanced automation – has enabled the packaging industry to innovate and adapt to the constant shifts in consumer behavior, concern and expectation. Digital packaging continues to grow as an affordable, eco-friendly solution.

In its “Future of Digital Print for Packaging to 2022” report, Smithers predicts very strong growth in corrugated, carton, flexibles and direct-to-shape, with developments in metal printing. They predict that the rapidly expanding digital (inkjet and toner) packaging market will grow to exceed $22.0 billion in 2022.

Conversations around workflow, automation and e-commerce solutions have intensified within the print industry in the wake of the pandemic. Add on the packaging boom and voilà - Print MIS (Management Information Systems), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), and W2P (Web to Print) solutions are being developed specifically for the packaging industry. These solutions are designed to streamline and automate workflows, reduce costs and errors, speed-up turn-around, and improve ROI, profits and customer satisfaction.

Software vendors like CloudLab, which recently launched their own web-to-pack offering, are enabling PSPs to capitalize on the packaging and e-commerce boom – whether they’re feeding digital or offset presses. Customers can order anywhere, anytime from an online store, personalizing and customizing every aspect of their order.

Even e-commerce behemoth, Shopify is getting in on the act. Together with Celtic House Venture Partners, Shopify’s CEO invested in Creative Layer, a personalized printing platform for Shopify creators, expected to emerge as the leading personalized print-on-demand platform.

The Packaging Boom – And What It Means For PSPs

When lockdowns occurred in 2020, it changed consumer habits and behaviors. Wanted to eat out? You had to order in. Wanted to purchase something other than necessities? Order it online. For the most part, this mentality has formed into habit for consumers, and according to the OECD, it isn’t likely to revert any time soon.

Food delivery and e-commerce – particularly retail e-commerce – exploded during the pandemic, and as a result the demand for packaging increased significantly. Considered essential, the packaging industry – along with food and beverage and medical – drove demand for packaging and tool and die components. In mid-April of 2020, when most businesses were shut down, the packaging industry continued to operate at between 83-95% capacity.

Today’s boxes, bags and packages are eco-friendly, sustainable solutions that are worthy of the unboxing experience. They grab attention, intrigue customers, and persuade them to choose one product over the rest – both online and off. PSPs attentive to customer expectations, the unboxing phenomenon, e-commerce, interactive print and the science of touch can capitalize on the multi-billion-dollar packaging boom – and influence a fluid, seamless brand experience across any and every channel – from shopping cart to shipping box.