It has been over 23 years since, for the first time in history, on August 11, 1994, the online retail pioneer from US East Coast called NetMarket sold a CD to a man in Philadelphia using a credit card over the internet. It was “Ten Summoners’ Tales” by Sting.
The next day, The New York Times wrote an article about this historic event.
In it, they had to specify, just in case readers were confused, that “the Internet” was a global computer network. And that some companies were waiting for security protocols to arrive in order to scale up business on the platform.
One engineer behind the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption protocol that was used for this notable transaction also included a prophecy that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin would one day emerge and make credit cards obsolete.
And then they dispassionately stated that the package itself will arrive by much more conventional means. Shipped by FedEx from a warehouse.
Online retail, the internet and the whole wide world have changed so much since 1994, that the New York Times article seems like a chronicle of ancient history.
Today, cryptocurrencies are a reality. Online business mainstream. But some things still stay the same. One thing, in particular, has not changed the slightest:
Orders are still being shipped by much more conventional means, dispassionately, packaging and delivery merely an afterthought. Although let’s admit it, a very cumbersome and painful afterthought (at least for shops not using Outvio).
The online retail business has been with us for over two decades, but only now is the global revolution of mainstream eCommerce really claiming its rightful share of the overall retail revenue pie. And that share only keeps growing – currently, around 11% of all global retail is done online and this number is projected to almost double only in the next 3 years according to Statista. Although this number differs quite a lot by country, one thing is clear – growth in the online retail sector is and will be huge!
This revolution, supported by the growing ease of access to the market via technological advances and SaaS solutions, is bringing more and more businesses and shoppers online. Faster than ever.
It is transforming the online into the norm and maybe in not so distant future will even be squeezing out the physical brick and mortar shops and supermarkets….
And as technological innovation becomes commonplace and easily accessible, “mundane” details start to become more important again.
By this, I mean that, since the infrastructure to set up business online is so abundant, the competitive advantage has to come elsewhere. While a few years ago successful online shops were mostly the ones with the most innovative technology solution and the biggest developers army, today it is once again about the basics – marketing, customer service, ease of use, the speed of delivery, packaging and branding.
This is why, in today’s competitive market of online shops, the difference is not just made online anymore, it is made offline.
So why not start someplace simple.
Even if it sounds a bit quirky… why not start with your delivery packaging! It is just one place where a difference can be made, but it can be done with ease and just a little bit of thought, with great effect and return.
Delivery packaging – the opportunity to affirm your brand personality
Ever notice how in shopping centres some shops like to play nice soothing music, while others go for energetic and uplifting?
Or how just the ambience and interior design will make you perceive a shop as more casual/prestigious/hipster?
Or how you are sometimes drawn into a store just because of the nice fragrance of lavender suspended in their entrance? Not to even mention the sweet smell of fresh pastries near the bakery that foresees doom to the diets of anyone passing by?!
These are not mere coincidences and fortunate accidents. Someone has planned it that way to make you buy more!
Remember the exhilarating aroma of fresh coffee surrounding all the Starbucks cafés? Well, don’t tell anyone, but there are good grounds to assume it is not all coming from their coffee bean roasters…
There are plenty of tricks physical retailers play to condition our senses into buying more.
And there is no reason why online shops cannot do the same with the main physical interaction they have with their customers – the delivery and packaging of their order.
Think of the delivery package as a physical extension of your online shops’ personality and mojo. A part of the customer experience you deliver. And the affirmation of the essence of your brand.
Since delivery packaging inevitably adds to the running cost of the online shop, there are also practical economic aspects to consider in addition to the creative branding ones.
Therefore, let’s divide the delivery packaging planning into two stages:
- Cost and efficiency
- Customer experience
Cost and efficiency
Before delving into the creative process of coming up with a package to wow and hook the customer, it is necessary to clarify more practical issues, like:
Cost of packaging:
The shipping package for online orders represents a small, but a significant cost to eCommerce businesses.
It is somewhat of a challenge for a majority of online shops to decide where exactly lies the balance between cutting costs on delivery packaging and taking risks with the safe and polite arrival of the order.
The most basic criteria for choosing the delivery package is that it needs to adequately protect the order and ensure its safe arrival.
This means that you cannot bluntly go with the cheapest option available.
Depending on the products, a simple plastic bag might be all you need, or maybe even a sturdy box on its own won’t do and you need to add some filler to make sure everything arrives safe and sound.
Always go for the most minimal, cost-efficient but sufficient option. Preferably recycled and robust and environment-friendly.
And do not worry about over designing a delivery box to stand out. There is no need to invest money just for the looks of the box, a classical brown box is all you need (I will explain why below in the customer experience section).
Cost of shipping:
The cost of your shipment will be likely calculated based on volume and not weight (asI discovered the hard way, after opening my own online shop some time ago).
This means your delivery box itself will have much more to do with your shipping costs than whatever it is you are shipping in it.
Which is why you should be well informed about your shipping rates before you decide on the packaging.
Your decision regarding the exact dimensions of it should be based on maximising the size of the box, so it would fit as many items you need to ship, while at the same time minimising the size according to your shipping rate brackets.
The lighter and leaner the package, the less cost it will add to your shipments.
For example, you might have products that are just within the margins of the courier’s measurements for a lower rate, but adding a box will push you over to the higher one. If your product is packaged securely enough within the display package, use strong wrapping paper or an envelope to minimise the empty space in your shipment. Or try out a makeshift box from a cardboard sheet that fits snug around the product.
As long as it looks decent and provides sufficient protection, feel free to improvise in order to cut your costs.
Ease of usage:
The main virtue of owning an online shop is that it cuts out so many unnecessary tasks and obligations that had been unavoidable, until eCommerce.
Tasks like cleaning and maintaining a showroom, stocking the shelves, price tagging, enforcing security etc. etc.!
This all spells “efficiency”. Online shops are much more efficient than physical shops. They are much more cost-effective and less demanding on resources.
And to keep it that way, whenever making “mundane” decisions about your online retail business, you should remind yourself to check for efficiency.
Your warehouse is where most of the physical labour is performed in your business.
There are a lot of operations that need to be optimised in the warehouse. One of them is securely and properly packaging each order for shipping.
To make this a fast and simple task, any packaging you choose to use should be easily unfolded, filled and sealed.
Clear markings on the packaging and already incorporated closing adhesives will probably be costs you do not want to disagree with.
Reusability for returns:
Multifunctional design always adds value.
And in the case of delivery packages, it can deliver a lot for your customers if it easily allows them to ship back items they want to return.
There will be a lot of those returns, mostly coming from your best customers, so make their life as easy as possible.
In essence, of course, any box, envelope or bag could be used to return a shipment.
But enthusiasm on delivery might render it un-reusable depending on how easy it is to open. Which is why ideally your packaging should be easily undone and clearly marked with instructions.
The same way, a shortage of box tape at your customer’s house might mean your return will arrive partially opened or just sealed with some… creativity (read: chewing gum – yes, it can happen).
To avoid this and to give your goods a safe return trip, the box or envelope should already come with the return adhesive seal attached.
This kind of reusability will also send a message to your customers that returns are ok. It will encourage your customers to feel at ease with their decisions (after all, they clearly can change their mind if they want to!), thus making them likely to shop even more in the future.
Now, to the more creative part of your delivery packages.
There are two times when you can impress your customer when they receive an order.
First when they initially get it in their hands and later on when they open it.
It might seem superfluous to divide their short interaction with your shipment into two parts, but what might impress in the first instance might not have the same effect later.
Therefore, let’s look at these brief interactions as separate steps that are easily fine-tuned in order to deliver more than your customers are expecting:
The receiving experience:
When receiving any delivery, the customer always makes an automatic assessment regarding the appearance and feel of the packaging. This takes place within seconds and usually unconsciously.
The main goal for the customer at this point is to determine:
- Has the order been adequately protected during the delivery?
- Has there been any incident with the parcel on the way, and if so, has the packaging provided enough protection for the items inside?
- Does it look like the sender has packaged the goods with care, attention and love?
- Has the packaging been chosen with attention to best practices of sustainability in mind?
This is the first time your customer is physically interacting with your online shop and it is essential that all these initial questions receive an immediate positive response in your customer’s mind.
It is also important to note that apart from being polite and safe, the visual design of the delivery package itself is not that important to customers. I have heard many online shop owners confirm that fancy delivery packages seem like a great idea initially but then provides little return in reality.
Mostly because any graphics and colouring adds to the cost of the package but might actually deliver a less than desirable impression when received, as of course, usually packages arrive somewhat dirty and worn out.
So if you design a sleek white minimalistic box that on arrival is supposed to announce: “here I am, your fresh super cool premium and cutting edge goosebumps producing must-have”… Then, in reality, it’s more than likely the actual message will be “oh, I finally made it, it got a bit rough out there for a while, but never mind all the fingerprints, dust and scratches, I’m still… new-ish… yeaah, the stuff inside is fiiiine (… right?)!”.
Just take a look at Amazon.
They used to ship everything in their branded boxes but now use mostly generic packaging with a dash of branded tape. That’s it. And if anyone should know what works here and what not, it’s Amazon.
So, keep it simple.
Nevertheless, the brand and profile of the online shop should still be considered when choosing the packaging.
For example, shipping Dior dresses or reusable diapers in plastic bags would be extremely bad business judgment. There is nothing high profile or environment-friendly about plastic bags. Meaning in both cases, the package would clash immediately with the personality of the customer.
It is also vital to keep in mind, that more and more of your customers are taking recycling to the heart, which is a good reason to always consider sustainability when deciding on a delivery package material.
In short, your customers might not care much about how the packaging looks, but they do care about how it is made and if it fulfils its function.
The unboxing experience:
The moment of unboxing.
This is the time to really make a difference. An opportunity to impress. And there is no better way to impress your customers than to exceed their expectations.
The good news is, that at the moment, it is not too difficult to do! Online shoppers are currently used to receiving their items nonchalantly, with no frills nor sweeteners.
And this can easily, and cost-effectively be improved upon.
If the delivery package itself has been engineered to meet the above criteria of simple, efficient and sustainable design, the outside of the box should set the customers mind at ease and to a state where they expect the content to be also professional and correct, yet simple and dispassionate.
Thus, any big contrast with this expectation will have a great positive effect.
It also will condition the customer to perceive much more positively the items received and reduces the likelihood of returns – the same biases are at work here as when people actually have to decide on making returns.
Just imagine yourself taking a bite of the humblest looking muffin, only to find out that it is deliciously succulent and filled with the most gorgeous cream cheese, yuzu and rasbperry filling…
Merely the contrast between your expectations and reality will make you call this the best muffin in the world. I would even say, your likelihood of posting on social media about this renegade muffin that came at you with divine palate out of nowhere – about 98%.
So how to deliver this magic to your customers? It is much simpler than you would think.
2. Make opening the box a sensory experience. Here you can use the same basic principles physical shops do for conditioning customers perceptions. There are so many things you can do, the only “limits” really are your brand identity, customer profile and budget. Let’s look at just a few possibilities:
- Use coloured or printed tissue paper to wrap the order in. But not just any colour or print! Do your research and brainstorming first. What is it you want to tell your customers about your brand exactly? How do you want them to feel about you and about themselves? Then choose the colour and pattern to match.
- Wrap the items up with a lace bow to make them seem more exclusive or tailored. This is a must with premium goods and a great way to show love for smaller bespoke brands.
- Add a scented tester or a sticker to the box (or why not a nice branch of lavender if it goes with your branding). Make sure the aroma, once again, supports your brand and what you are delivering.
2. Include a personalised thank you note in the package (psst, it does not really need to be completely personalised!) or have a message printed on the inside of the box to tell the customers how much you look forward them enjoying their delivery. If your shipping volume allows, you could even add a handwritten message with each shipment – for zero cost you will make tons of loyal customers who feel special, appreciated and pampered!
3. Add discount coupons and invites to secret events into the box. Getting special treatment and exclusive perks always make people feel extremely appreciated. It also makes them shop more and come back for seconds!
4. There is absolutely no one on this planet that does not like samples or freebies. If your business model and products allow – add some to the orders. Maybe your suppliers will even bear the cost of it!
5. Give away some branded perks like stickers or even better – everyday items that are useful and practical. If you sell wine, for example, a cool bottle stopper with your name on it will remind the customer of you every time they store a bottle overnight. Or if you sell clothes, why not ship the items together with hangers that have your logo on them? This is a great way to add value to the customer, while at the same time sneak into their everyday lives to remind them of your existence. Because, as they say, out of sight, out of mind.
The opportunities are endless. Just have fun brainstorming and deliver something amazing to your customers the next time they order from you!
So, to wrap up this package:
In a growingly competitive online retail market there is no excuse not to take advantage of all opportunities to positively influence your customers, including the delivery packaging.
Make sure the delivery package is safe and polite and the right size considering your shipping rates and products, but do not worry about spending resources on design and appearance, safety is much more important to your customers than looks.
Inside the box is where you need to deliver more than the customer is expecting and a little can go a long way here!