Why you need to design packaging as much for online stores as on-the-shelf

With consumers looking further and further away from the shelf, packaging and product designers need to consider the small-screen appeal of their work and basic functionality. Fiona Florence, MD of brand consultancy JDO UK, talks digital 'shelf-shout' in the era of ecommerce.

In the blink of an eye, our notion of shopping has shifted. The explosion of technology and 24/7 screen culture has caused each and every one of us to rethink how we buy stuff. 

My epiphany came on a cold December’s day a decade ago. Heavily pregnant with my third child, the appeal of Amazon’s next-day delivery easily won out over the prospect of battling through the Oxford Street crowds in the run up to Christmas. No thanks. And what started with a handful of orders is now, ten years on, pretty much all my purchases, from beer to bog roll.

I’m not alone. Large-scale migration to ecommerce has triggered dwindling footfall on the High Street and encouraged an increasingly competitive online marketplace. This shift has fundamentally altered how people interact with the brands they buy.

No longer do shoppers see your ad and then show up at the aisle armed with cash to get the brand in hand. Instead, most will now do some form of ‘pre-tail’ sleuthing: they’ll Google it, read customer reviews, and maybe do a price comparison, piecing together all the requisite facts that guide their future purchase. 

This shows how the user journey has changed monumentally. Pre-tail, retail, and post-sale user experience must all now be rigorously considered by brand owners and managers in today’s digital-to-physical world. Greater importance has to be placed on design innovation across new customer touchpoints; greater thought needs to be given to how every step on this new journey must earn its place to engineer a powerful brand experience. The Centre for Retail Research predicts ecommerce will take 18% market share this year, so the time to do so is now. 


Fiona Florence, MD of JDO UK, had a Christmas epiphany on the future of packaging and product design

Designing for pixels and packaging

On the back of this shift, product design needs to deliver on real and virtual shelves. Brands must create a clear identity that works across both mediums – hitting a sweet spot where look, feel, message and emotional impact are consistent in pixels and in person.

In the context-less world of digital, products now need to pass the ‘thumbnail test’ where simplicity and clarity are critical. Brands needs to proudly stand out on-screen – instantly recognisable through high-quality, hyper-vivid visuals. And even at the micro scale of mobile, product information has to be clear, present and readable to satisfy the demands of consumers who are time-starved yet information-hungry. Any superfluous information must be stripped away so the key purchase-trigger messages land in an emotion-evoking point of connection.

Many direct-to-consumer brands have grasped the importance of designing digital-to-physical experiences that play to these new rules, stealing a march on their retail-only competitors. Beauty brand Glossybox and shaving brand Harry’s are examples that show how digital can transcend the transactional to take consumers on a more emotionally-driven journey. For Harry’s, it’s about buying into the story of the brand and its founders, and in the case of Glossybox, it’s about surprising and delighting subscribers with a door-drop of products tailored just for them.

Making the customer experience heart of your work

Getting up close and personal with consumers in this way is one of the key pillars of delivering product presence or shelf shout in the ecommerce era, where consumers have become accustomed to the one-to-one nature of digital communication. Unilever’s direct to consumers skincare brand Skinsei, which has launched in beta in the US, does exactly this, prompting users to take an online diagnostic test that determines the contents of a customised – and beautifully-presented – wellness pack despatched via the post.


An example of Skinsei's packaging work

Companies like this, who are designing experiences that optimise every point of engagement, are reaping the rewards of greater customer loyalty and brand affinity. They end one customer journey on a high note, making the end user feel unique and understood, and encourage them to come back for more.

Some have been surprisingly slow to adapt – an estimated half of firms are not even giving consideration to how the rigours of ecommerce delivery are impacting on their brands. And for those playing catch-up, the clock is ticking.

My son, now 10-years-old, is part of a generation who will grow up worrying less about clicks or bricks but fully expecting an engaging, finely-crafted customer experience across every touchpoint. So while the priority for brands should be adapting to the ecommerce present, the real opportunity is in designing their place in an omnichannel future.

Read next: 16 packaging design tips.

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