The truth about packaging: online vs retail

When it comes to designing the packaging for a food or drink product, you need to think about much more than just a pretty shell and dope design. Here’s the lowdown.
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If you want someone to purchase your food or drink, the packaging it comes in will play a significant role – this much you’re probably aware of. But the approach you’ll need to take will differ a lot depending on whether you’re planning to sell directly to customers (eg, via your website) or on shelves in a store. That’s thanks to our old friend, psychology. 

We spoke with Tessa Stuart, a shopper researcher who works with global brands like Unilever and challenger brands like Pip & Nut to test products for shelf appeal in stores, and to get a feel for the way shoppers behave online versus IRL. Here she details the key differences between the two – and how that might influence your packaging.

In store

Customers want to see the product 

‘In store, customers want to know what the product looks like. Show off the actual product using a window in the packaging if you can, and if you can’t, spend money on photography that really represents what the customer will get. When the imagery on the packaging doesn’t match the actuality of the product, customers get upset.’

Customers can easily compare prices 

‘Supermarkets provide the price per 100g of products, so customers can easily make a value judgment about what they’re getting. You need to make your product look roughly similar to your competitors’ in terms of size, because consumers will easily be able to tell if you’re selling a lot less product for a much higher price.’

Customers are buying a category 

‘In retail, you will always be evaluated against other brands because shoppers tend to buy within categories – think about how you will put “butter” on your shopping list and not a specific brand like “Flora”. Stick within the norms of the category. You want the customer to recognise that the product fits into the category they are looking for.’

Create sample-size packaging 

‘Sampling is a big part of the in-store experience, so brands should consider developing sample-size packaging to sell in stores. This allows customers to try your product with very little risk and it gets them over the hump of what might be too premium or risky a purchase otherwise.’


Customers want to get to know the brand

‘Online, someone arriving at your site is probably already partially committed to browsing it, so you have more time to tell your story. You can’t skimp on the imagery, because people still need to know what the product looks like to get them to buy it, but you can also share info about sourcing, mission, values, etc that you couldn’t share otherwise.’

Customers can’t easily compare prices 

‘If you are selling direct to consumers from your own site, with only your own products, then it’s going to be harder for consumers to judge the relative pricing against other prices like they would do in retail. And if you want them to make price comparisons, you have the luxury of setting those comparison points.’

Customers are buying a product 

‘The way your product is packaged won’t affect how it’s categorised online or on your site, so feel free to be more innovative with packaging (as long as you make clear what the product is and what value it will add, such as taste). The goal is to make an impression on the potential customer viewing your product, so that they convert to buying it.’

Create bulk-packaging 

‘The cost of shipping is something to overcome, so bundling [see above] can make sense. It can reduce the relative cost of shipping and make sure that any postage costs don’t look so large compared with the amount spent on the product, or allow you to build shipping costs into your product pricing.’ 

WTF is bundling?

Bundling is kind of how it sounds: when a business packages several products together to sell as a single product, often at a lower price than it would cost to buy the products individually.

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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