Speed, Engagement, and Big Ideas: The Future of E-Commerce Packaging


An Interview With Ann Buchman, Vice President of Marketing & Growth at Cermount

Amazon Key was released ahead of the 2017 holiday season to a mix of joy and anxiety. The service may have been positioned as a convenient way to crack down on porchside theft, but many found (and still find) the idea of Amazon associates unlocking their front doors a little creepy.

Regardless of Key’s success or adoption rate, the program tells us something important about Amazon’s battle with an outdated supply chain: there aren’t enough hours in the day for customers to receive all the products they’re ordering. And since this isn’t slowing down, packages have to be moved faster than distribution channels allow. Faster than UPS. Faster than FedEx. Faster than Flex.

The numbers of customers migrating to e-commerce means that many products designed for the supermarket shelves are being repackaged and shipped using the wrong fulfilment model.

Still, arguably, the chief complaints about e-commerce center around packaging — specifically the amount of cardboard, plastic, and bubble wrap ending up at our doorsteps. In many ways, packaging represents both the biggest opportunity and challenge to brands. New packaging is an investment of time, resources, and creative energy, but it’s becoming a necessity.

In a recent post, we outlined some of the key ideas and motivation behind our new EcoPack, an e-commerce packaging initiative aimed at reducing waste through the supply chain, improving customer experiences, and optimizing how we move products from A to B.

One of the partners in getting this project launched has been Cermount, an award-winning social enterprise with expertise in blending, filling, and packaging of dry foods and dietary supplements. A voice we’ve come to know well through this process is Ann Buchman, Vice President of Marketing & Growth at Cermount.

The feedback and guidance Ann’s team has provided through the ideation, testing, and production phase of the EcoPack launch has been vital. The rollout of the product reinforces a common theme we consistently return to during projects: collaboration is key. Whether internally or working with your outside stakeholders, being able to rely on the expertise and input of multiple players with specialized areas of focus is crucial to delivering a high-quality product.

While everything is fresh, we wanted to take some time to pick Ann’s brain about the challenges of innovating something as standardized as product packaging, what there is to be gained from putting in the work, and her long-term vision for the future packaging choices that brands wanting to stay ahead of the curve will need to make.

Why is e-commerce packaging so important and simultaneously such a tricky thing for brands to do?

E-commerce packaging could be one of the most important opportunities a brand has to build a relationship with consumers. It elevates connection with the consumer from a transaction to direct and memorable communication.

At-home delivery has the opportunity to either reinforce or negate the consumer’s impression of the brand and product. All elements of the packaging system need to be taken into consideration to prevent the consumer from experiencing disappointment or undue burden, or ultimately losing faith in the brand. From primary packaging (flexible pouches vs. rigid containers), to the invoice (personalized thank you’s can be a big deal), to the secondary shipper (color, campaign messages, durability, reusability), the brand must be laser-focused on making receiving the product a positive experience.

For example, if brands design e-commerce specific packaging that better honors the one-to-one distribution system, they are seen as creative, thoughtful and smart – not a bad way to start a relationship with a consumer.

What are some of the lesser known obstacles that arise when you start to combine materials for the purpose of customer packaging?

My opinion is that the only thing standing in the way of purposeful packaging for e-commerce is an over-attachment to the conventional ways of doing business. It can be difficult to get all parties to accept something new, and it can be even more difficult for disparate packaging partners to break the habit of “silo-ing” ideas. Prioritizing a team mentality over maintaining attitudes of separation is key to creative problem-solving.

Technology, materials, and consumer attitudes are ripe for new ideas. Brands have a real opportunity to strike at issues near and dear to consumers’ hearts, like identity, sustainability, and functionality. They need only to “think outside the box.”

At what point can you start to separate design from functionality when it comes to packaging materials? How difficult is it to strike the right balance between these two?

Striking the right balance between packaging design and functionality can be easy with the right team. Having Product Managers and Graphic Designers and Packaging Engineers that are not only skilled, but also forward-thinking, makes the process move smoothly. What typically happens when a new packaging project is tilted too much toward engineering or toward design is that you end up with an ineffective package that took a long time to complete. Design and engineering stakeholders need to focus on what’s most appropriate for the challenge. A brand can save a lot of time and tears by letting go of outlier goals in favor of a commitment to packaging that informs the customer, satisfies the customer, and preserves and protects the product.

When you look at the online world as a driver for brands — in terms of sales, awareness, retention — what should manufacturers be thinking about when it comes to their short and long term strategies with packaging?

Distinctive packaging can be a useful tool in fostering relationships and building retention. With online sales of CPG growing at unbelievably high rates, brands have the opportunity to not only participate, but be a memorable influencer in the online sales channel. Doing it well is the challenge. To that point, brands need to consider all aspects of the distribution process for their packaging and be as upfront about it as possible with their customers. Making consumers aware upfront that the packaging for their online sales was created specifically for e-commerce can build trust and inspire curiosity, thus resulting in a trial purchase. Then, by providing a positive experience with unboxing and package end use, they start to forge a relationship with the consumer that might not have been possible if using traditional packaging. This fosters retention.

What were some of the challenges that emerged when creating a new packaging variation for a specific marketplace?

The first challenge was to identify a flexible structure to serve as the primary package to protect the capsules, as well as to meet Enzymedica’s sustainable packaging initiatives. We found our solution in a multilayer high-barrier pouch made from renewable resources, combined with a specially designed secondary corrugated mailer for direct-to-consumer delivery.

The next challenge was generating enough interest from resin suppliers and film converters, since the initial quantities were relatively small. We accomplished this by fostering honest conversation with like-minded companies willing to invest in the next big idea. Co-creating an alternative to the petroleum-based plastics industry was a common motivator that spurred our team toward a creative solution.

What are you noticing in terms of customer demand for alternative packaging solutions? Do manufacturers understand the demand, or is the biggest barrier to implementation purely a cost/logistical issue?

There is no question that consumers are looking for more environmentally friendly packaging. They are tired of seeing so much waste in their own trash cans and are aware of the hazards associated with traditional materials and the processes that produce them.

E-commerce specific packaging solutions do not have to cost more than the typical manufacturer’s response to use recyclable or renewable materials. A well-designed packaging system can reduce waste, damage, returns, and cost, with the added benefit of a consumer base that feels heard.

Manufacturers are shipping e-commerce orders in myriad ways, so consumers have not yet developed a sense of what the standard should be. So, when they receive a thoughtfully designed e-commerce package, they become more aware and more discerning of other packaging that doesn’t address their needs or the channel needs.

When it comes to the lifecycle of packaging, what would be the best-case-scenario for both brands and consumers, with regards to shipping, storage, and recycling options?

Here is the rule of thumb: Use as little packaging as possible and make as little impact on the waste stream as possible.

One potential solution is a push for a more broad scale collection of flexible packaging, including multilayer structures. Innovative companies like TerraCycle are helping to pull more out of the waste stream and into a recycle or repurpose stream, but the mainstream recycling systems need to step up to the challenge of flexible collection as well.