The experience of opening and handling a purchased item can be more important than the item itself.
| Happy out of the box |
The most useful product I’ve bought during the pandemic is a utility knife for unboxing. Before the epidemic, I had been fighting with blunt scissors and cardboard boxes for 15 years, and had experienced nine large and small moves. Now, the utility knife has entered my daily life, it almost never leaves my hand, and there is no need to make a separate space for storage. For more than a year, I have been in the jungle of packaging boxes with a utility knife, dismantling various packaging boxes that are bigger than me and small enough to hold in one hand. I shop online for the daily necessities I used to drop by after get off work, as well as the things I need to adapt to life changes: disposable masks, sweatpants, ergonomic desks and chairs for sciatica.
Many packages, like nesting dolls, contain other boxes that need to be disassembled. For example, when the barber shop was closed during the pandemic, I had to buy myself hair dye. Almost all the small items in the hair dye box are packed in their own little boxes, even disposable gloves and disposable hats are packaged separately. Not to mention those crumpled kraft paper, inflatable plastic bumpers, product cards on packages, generic thank you cards, stickers and all kinds of advertising fridge magnets. No matter how hard I try to consolidate my orders, cram as much product as I need into a large mailer, or not buy it at all, I still have to watch my house pile up in mountains of cardboard, waste paper, and plastic. A certain amount of packaging is necessary, but most of these are just useless show-offs, and consumers as spectators have no right to refuse.
I would be overestimating myself by claiming that I have a deep aversion to overpackaging. I do hate seeing waste paper boxes stacked high in the corners of my apartment, hate how useless they are, and hate that they are hard evidence of my impulse to spend. But it is undeniable that “out of the box” allows consumers to greatly satisfy their desire to buy and feel the emotional climax brought by careful planning. It can cause a dopamine shock to almost everyone. Compared to the traditional way of shopping regularly in the past, as long as you have the Internet and a credit card, you can enjoy the good feeling of shopping out of the box at any time. The process of opening even the most mundane product has a Russian nesting doll-like fun.
This is becoming more common as online consumption increases. Shopping online means that consumers can’t get in touch with items to examine the details as they would in a brick-and-mortar store. Online, already packaged products often rely on beautiful photos to attract consumers, and alternatives are becoming more and more abundant. With the exponential growth of online consumption, the purpose of packaging has become more complex, and the experience of opening and handling a purchased item may be more important than the item itself.
In his book “Complete Packaging: The Secret History and Purpose of Containers”, Thomas Hein stated that packaging is not only a product of consumer culture, but also a consumer culture itself. In the late 19th century, before industrial production brought packaged goods to the continental United States, most Americans were accustomed to a self-sufficient model, producing and manufacturing what they needed. For those things that cannot be made, they will choose to go to the store or hawker to buy it. Bring a sack, weigh the flour or sugar you need, negotiate a price with the store, and put the item in the sack at the end. Mass production replaced this quaint shopping experience. Packaged goods are sold in a fixed, measurable quantity at a fixed price. Branding gives the impression of standardized quality. “The packaging promises that you no longer have to worry about how your product is made,” Hein wrote. “You don’t have to think twice to make the right decision.”
Do you hate seeing waste paper boxes stacked on top of each other? They are hard evidence of your impulse to spend.
| Both beads and beads |
Product packaging inspires us when shopping, otherwise “selection” will be a very complicated thinking process. In the long run, Hein argues, this will be crucial to sparking consumption dynamism that matches the production scale of modern manufacturers. Today, manufacturers are able to produce too many things—the global annual net worth of manufactured goods nearly tripled from 1997 to 2019, to more than $13 trillion. With product packaging, consumers can find those brands they trust, browse labels to shop around, and use visual cues like images to confirm which products are right for them. “If there is no packaging, how much will your impulse purchases be reduced?” Hein asked.
For packaging strategies to work, people need to internalize marketing logic. You more or less know the aesthetic symbols a brand will use when trying to appeal to consumers like you. For example, I’m a 35-year-old white female, college graduate, with disposable income, and living in a liberal metropolis. Even though I personally prefer more saturated shades, those in gray-pink or gray-green packaging are trying to appeal to consumers like me.
In some cases, packaging arbitrage even becomes the foundation of an entire company’s profitability. Dollar Shave Club is a direct-to-consumer start-up. The company itself simply does not design and manufacture its own brand of razors. Instead, it bought cheap razors from South Korean manufacturer Doleco, repackaged them, and expanded into markets where Gillette and Comfort, two traditional razor brands, had not yet entered. In 2016, Unilever Group acquired the Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion. Samantha Bergeron, owner of Unmasked, a brand strategy consultancy, told me that focusing on packaging existing brands is a means of taking market share from industry giants. Her firm helps clients such as Target and Amazon assess consumer perceptions of new products and consumer concepts, including the impact of packaging details on consumers’ purchases. “There is nothing new under the sun,” but some things can be “reinvented” in dramatic ways.
Bergeron took “Method”, a cleaning product brand launched in 2001, as an example to illustrate that the appearance of even the most common products can bring a different shopping experience. On grocery store shelves, opaque white, silver and blue bottles dominate — clean colors. And The Method opts for beautifully colored soaps and cleansers in minimalist clear plastic bottles. At a time when consumers are more environmentally conscious and question the dangers of chemicals, The Method’s products respond to their concerns, even in the packaging – open and transparent. When you choose to buy its cleanser, you are also acknowledging the emotional value created by its packaging. You might believe its cleaners are better suited for a group like you — stylish and fussy. It looks more modern and more sophisticated and expensive than the old-fashioned cleaners that have stayed the same for decades, even though it’s actually priced the same as the other brands. This is the difference baby.
The ability of manufacturers to produce goods is so vast that to the spending power there seems to be an infinite number of versions of each category to choose from. This means that the “shelf life” of goods is getting shorter and shorter, and designers of products and packaging must constantly try to bring old things new life. If everything around you looks more designed than before, it’s because of this packaging-conscious consumer culture. In just 20 years, this emphasis on aesthetics has made packaging a battlefield without gunpowder smoke. Now product packaging is usually developed along with the product itself, rather than the last step before the product is released to the public. “Designing beautiful packaging is just the beginning,” says Bergeron. “Ensuring that the packaging conveys the right message about the brand and the product, and communicates with the target consumer group, is where the real hard work comes in.”
For some manufacturers, they need to make the packaging of their products eco-sustainable; for others, at least look eco-sustainable.
Back when Hein began writing his history of product packaging in the 1990s, the outer packaging, tucked away behind the scenes, was an overlooked shopping determinant. However, as the business writing web becomes more intuitive, catalyzed by smartphones and social media, the role weight of packaging has grown considerably.
”The packaging itself has become a product,” says Stuart Lee, creative director and owner of the brand design company “Optimal Workshop”. He pointed out that when people review online shopping, they are not only reviewing the product container, but also the outer casing. They share the emotional experience of the look and feel of the packaging. For manufacturers, the phrase “this package looks so expensive” is simply the best praise.
| High price and environmental protection |
Unpacking a truly gorgeous item is often a lengthy process. You need to untie strips of ribbons, open layers of boxes, and peel off sheets of paper. Beautifully packaged to make your unboxing feel like a Christmas morning full of surprises. Owning a smartphone means that people can experience these fine details without having to buy it. Packaging becomes the new form of entertainment. Influencers not only show their fans their shiny new toys, but also take viewers through the full emotional experience of purchasing a new product by documenting the unboxing process.
But at the same time, these high-consumption groups with sufficient disposable income are also paying more and more attention to climate change and environmental protection. So why are they still gushing about the feel of thick wrapping paper? Why don’t they choose fully recyclable paper bags when buying clothes? Why do they want a plastic bag when they spend a small amount? Packaging designers must combine the eco-friendly and shopping experience. For some manufacturers, they need to make the packaging of their products eco-sustainable; for others, at least look eco-sustainable. Manufacturers are free to choose clean designs and natural tones that symbolize an eco-friendly aesthetic.
However, the best designs are meant to not be thrown away at all, as these packs are beautiful and strong enough to be reused. This is not a new concept. “Good Mama” jam jars have been used for years to hold everything from wine to spices; opening the butter cookie tin to find Mama’s needle and thread inside may be a childhood memory of yours. But Steward points out that such packaging tends to cost more than comparable products.
The diversity of our current consumption choices is far beyond what the human brain can truly handle, and beyond what can be defined by any objective measure of need. However, the consumer market does not need to be balanced and is not giving everyone what they need. In fact, in absolute quantities produced, the market is committed to creating greater demand among those with higher consumption levels. That’s why the overpacking doesn’t stop. Consumerism is the channel through which consumers regulate tedious routines. And manufacturers know that everything you value can be turned into a brand, including packaging that you wish to make simpler.