How to adapt your packaging for the next generation of e-commerce

Online shopper using a tablet to place an order over the internet

E-Commerce sales have exploded in recent years, thanks, in part, to the rise of Amazon, consumers’ growing interest in fast delivery, and the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Department of Commerce released a report stating consumers spent over $600 billion online with U.S. merchants in 2019, a 14.9% increase over 2018.1

Then came COVID-19. Buying online became the preferred way—and sometimes the only way—people felt comfortable getting groceries and other goods. While COVID-19’s effect on e-commerce is still being analyzed, Adobe’s Digital Economy Index estimated that online spending in May 2020 hit $82.5 billion, a 77% year-over-year increase.2

As retailers shift to e-commerce or grow their online sales, they must quickly adapt their packaging to safely deliver their goods, meet consumer needs and maintain their brand image. Radhika Raje, Product Manager of Packaging Solutions with Veritiv, is on the front lines helping companies across North America make these changes.

Retailers often focus on cost containment, sustainability and customer satisfaction when creating packaging. Raje says they must also consider product protection and damage reduction for e-commerce distribution. “We’re focused on damage reduction as part of product lifecycle management,” she explains. “Every damaged product that has to be returned and reshipped not only has a negative cost impact, but also may cause a bad customer service experience and potentially create more landfill waste.”

Changes in consumer preferences lead to changes in packaging 

Although a consumer’s biggest concern is usually the condition of the goods they receive, product packaging also influences their decisions and perceptions. And amid the spread of COVID-19, new concerns about safety are at the forefront. 

Barbara Hamilton, Regional Design Director with Veritiv, sees a balance between consumer interest in sustainability and safety. “It’s all about hygiene and how long germs last on certain surfaces. For example, some studies indicate the new coronavirus can live on plastic surfaces for a longer period of time than it can on cardboard.3 From a sustainability perspective, many companies are moving away from plastics, and we anticipate a further rise in paper-based packaging materials.”

Raje adds that some of Veritiv’s suppliers are working on germ-inhibiting solutions for this exact reason, along with other advancements to solve ongoing packaging challenges. “Making the packaging more resistant to germs would be the end goal,” she says. “We’re seeing significant levels of innovation to ensure product safety, from anti-microbial products to cold-chain packaging that can hold freezing temperatures for up to three days. It’s pretty incredible.”

4 tips for optimizing e-commerce packaging

Whether your company is opening a new e-commerce store or you’re looking to improve your existing online shopping experience, Raje and Hamilton have four key pieces of advice:


1. Test your existing packaging

“Engineers, like those on Veritiv’s team, can test with actual products or create a product surrogate to test the package,” Hamilton explains. “There are drop tests and other ways to simulate shipping scenarios, including testing for vibration, shock, compression and thermal capabilities.” 

Package prototypes can also be tested at Veritiv’s ISTA-certified testing labs to help ensure the concept meets shipping requirements before going to production. If test results for prototypes or manufactured packaging show flaws or weaknesses, Hamilton says packaging designers and engineers can work together to redesign packages for effectiveness and certification.


2. Explore diverse packaging materials 

E-commerce retailers (or “e-tailers”) have a wide variety of material options to choose from. The more traditional, paper-based substrates, such as corrugated and paperboard, still thrive. There are also many cushions and engineered solutions available, such as air pillows, kraft paper, foam cushioning and temperature-controlled packaging.  

The number of choices can be overwhelming, so Raje recommends working with a packaging specialist who can help select the materials that are best for your products and consumers.


3. Consider the full unboxing experience

Consumers often capture the unboxing experience and share their delight online. Raje says, “The customer experience begins the moment they receive the package, and it carries through to when they open it to get their goods and then dispose of the packaging material.” 

Consequently, Hamilton encourages e-tailers to find creative ways to leave a lasting impression after unboxing. For instance, she points to a cosmetic company that includes a message to the customer, stickers and makeup bag with each online purchase.


4. Treat your packaging as an extension of your brand

Considering the exterior and interior of your e-commerce packaging as part of your brand creates a holistic experience for the customer, reinforces your brand’s value during these final stages of the online shopping journey and nurtures long-term loyalty. 

“The power of brand is more important than ever. People are more selective about the products they buy,” says Hamilton. “Products do, but brands feel. It’s important to make an emotional connection with the consumer through your packaging. When the consumer believes in your product and is moved by the brand experience, they will be loyal to you.”

As e-commerce evolves, so will e-tailers

Raje and Hamilton agree that e-commerce growth won’t be slowing down anytime soon and that more businesses across all categories will start selling online. 

“Products that we wouldn’t expect to be shipped will be coming to our doors,” Raje says. “We anticipate that essentially every business—from restaurants to retail—will be offering their products online by the end of 2020, if they aren’t already. The protective packaging industry will continue to evolve to meet the demand.”    

Hamilton adds that, while e-commerce was gaining steam long before the pandemic, it has pushed e-tailers to up their game. “This movement was already happening,” she says, “but COVID-19’s impact on the economy and consumers’ increased demand for buying online is forcing more rapid change.”

The benefits of online shopping will continue long after COVID-19 dissipates. In the meantime, the economic lessons learned from 2020, coupled with the fast evolution of consumer behavior, will shape the e-commerce industry for years to come. 


1  United States Census Bureu. (2020). Monthly Retail Trade.
2  Ambramovich, G. (2020, June 12). Online Shopping During COVID-19 Exceeds 2019 Holiday Season Levels. Adobe Blog.
3  van Doremalen et al. (2020, April 16). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567.