Entering the Age of Omnichannel Retail: SPC Impact Dives Deep into E-Commerce

May 2, 2018

Digitization of retail and the fast growth of e-commerce represent opportunities in the packaging sector, but also present challenges and uncertainties for people across the packaging value chain. At this year’s SPC Impact, e-commerce took center stage as a hot topic of conversation with significant interest by attendees.

The exploration of e-commerce began through a thought experiment exercise (what we called an ‘ideas lab’) to explore sustainability and user experience in e-commerce packaging. The workshop was led by Eric Abraham of YFYJupiter, who led a packed room of participants from brands, suppliers, and startups through a series of interactive exercises. After exploring overarching themes and using Post-its to callout challenges, opportunities, and inspirations — a framework captured from SPC’s workshop at OpenIDEO the previous day — participants explored sample e-commerce packages from a variety of sectors and vendors: electronics, food, apparel, personal care, and toys.

Participants focused on the unboxing experience — how is the customer is burdened or pleased when opening an e-commerce box? Is the packaging excessive? Is it clearly labeled to be recyclable? What are the materials used and how does the customer interact with them? Many conversations revolved around limiting the need for the outer box – or alternatively finding creative ways to use it, such as repurposing it into a garage for the toy truck that came inside of it, or as a stand for the cell phone charger product.

The creative juices were certainly flowing, and participants left understanding the need to start e-commerce packaging assessments with the customer’s experience and the package’s end of life – and work backwards in order to design an optimal package. Participants had their ideas memorialized on an e-commerce ‘living wall’, which other conference attendees continued to add to throughout the conference.

Other sessions focused on e-commerce included a masterclass hosted by Amazon demonstrating their process to simplify sustainable e-commerce packaging design for difficult to ship products. Brent Nelson and Vas Obeyesekere of Amazon took the audience through their journey to reduce and improve packaging to optimize shipping for big electronic items, bringing in a real flat screen TV and demonstrating the customer’s many pains to open and transport it through different packaging iterations of non-recyclable foam, bubble wrap, and oversized outer boxes that do not fit in customer elevators or are difficult to carry. Their so-called “customer obsession” rang loud and clear with a call to optimize the customer experience while minimizing cost and environmental impacts. They have reduced 51% total packaging volume for TVs in 2017 but do not consider the job done yet.

Also during the  session, Amazon announced an exciting new partnership with Sealed Air Corporation, introducing a unique new packaging suspension solution using corrugated paper lined with shock absorbing, springboard film, called Korrvu.

Companies can also optimize products as well as packaging. At Impact, we also heard about new innovations for personal care and cleaning products from Cleanyst, which makes liquid concentrates to add to water inside a reusable bottle, which eliminates disposable packaging and the transport of water weighted items.

Innovations such as these are critical to reduce damage to the product, which is one of the worst sustainability outcomes in terms of wasted resources and embodied emissions, while also reducing materials used and increasing efficiency in transport and user experience.

Finding this sweet spot between a sustainable type and amount of packaging while also preventing product damage was a recurring theme throughout other e-commerce sessions

During a panel of presentations called “E-commerce and the Changing Retail Environment Landscape,” companies across the value chain including UPS, PRS IN VIVO, Sealed Air, and DECATHLON discussed their struggles and successes in finding this balance, in addition to discussing topics like changing user experience on an online interface, appealing to new, younger customers, and optimizing packaging size and shape for logistics. This panel ended with a call to action by the SPC and ISTA to find that ”right” amount of packaging and gather critical data on damages and forge stronger collaborations.

The future of omnichannel retail is still very unknown. E-commerce is a small but rapidly growing line of business for many brands and retailers. Traditional retailers are rushing to adapt and new players are rushing to innovate. Is it possible to find one omnichannel packaging solution for all products? Should efforts focus on certain products first or fold out to all products? Where is the intersection of damage free, material reduction, recyclable, reusable, and renewable content? The SPC and our members are excited to continue exploring these topics and developing sustainable solutions to propel us into the future — which most certainly will include a growing place for online retail.