Making the Consumer Connection
At a store in South Carolina, before shoppers begin strolling the aisles and browsing shelves, they are asked to don a pair of futuristic-looking glasses. And as these consumers progress through their decision-making processes, the glasses rapidly track and record the movements of their eyes, providing notes on the products they viewed first, looked at the longest and returned to after gazing elsewhere.
What’s even more unusual about this retail environment, is that nothing is for sale. It is actually a highly technical research laboratory dubbed the CUshop, part of The Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics at Clemson University. According to Andrew Hurley, associate professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences at Clemson, and the creator of CUshop, by recording and studying data on consumer behavior, brands and packaging manufacturers can give themselves a competitive advantage before their products and packaging hit the market.
“When we analyze shopper behaviors across a specific category, we’ll unveil at least a dozen trends and insights around unarticulated consumer needs, which is a competitive edge when considering the direction of your design projects,” he says.
The Consumer Impact on Retail and Packaging
With the rapid rise of ecommerce, social media and instant access to information, the ways in which consumers are purchasing products are changing, and therefore impacting the entire retail industry. According to Katherine Cullen, director of industry and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation, the largest global retail association, consumers have become “highly empowered,” as they are now approaching the shopping and purchasing process with more information and options than ever before.
Therefore, Cullen says brands have been seeking new ways to stand out from the competition by extending their engagement with consumers. Some brands, she says, have taken on packaging initiatives designed to entertain a shopper.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of brands and retailers playing around with this idea of surprising and delighting the customer, whether that’s through packaging, or through a store event,” Cullen says. “They’re offering ways to really connect with people and remind them why they’re shopping. They’re not just buying a product. They’re buying an experience and something they can share.”
For example, Cullen explains that in the children’s apparel and toy markets, opening a package and “unboxing” a toy has become an integral part of the product experience. One line of toys that Cullen says has done a standout job of leveraging packaging for social media sharing is LOL Surprise, which produces miniature dolls, sold inside multiple layers of packaging. Videos of LOL Surprise toys being unboxed have popped up on YouTube, she says.
In addition to social media, Cullen says children’s brands have utilized packaging as a way to both extend the brand experience and provide an activity for families to take part in together. KidBox, an online retailer of children’s clothes, provides a strong example of a brand that has presented its packaging as an interactive and entertaining activity for both the child and parent consumer, Cullen says.
“[Consumers] have said one of the things they’ve noticed is actually getting the box, unwrapping it and opening it up has often become a bit of a warm experience for the families,” she says. “It’s a time where they hang out with their kids and the surprise of finding out what’s in there and opening it up is as much a part of what they’re actually going to keep and buy.”
In the ever-expanding world of ecommerce, consumers are constantly seeking out more information on the products they are purchasing, and utilizing available space on packaging has been one way brands are providing consumers with this content, says Matt Lindner, senior ecommerce analyst for Mintel, a global market intelligence agency.
Lindner says that the online grocery industry is expected to experience rapid growth in the coming years, and in terms of packaging, he explains meal kit brands can benefit from creativity in packaging design. For example, it’s becoming increasingly popular to print on the interior of corrugated packaging, which Lindner explains can be a method of providing more information to a consumer and encouraging future purchases.
“They could include a recipe that centers around one of the main ingredients in the meals and put that on the inside of their packaging as a value add,” Lindner says. “So let’s say it’s a lemon chicken dish. It has all the ingredients to make this chicken dish, but here’s another lemon chicken dish you can make later on. They’re not selling you the ingredients right now, but that helps brands get more life out of their packaging investment.”
Maximizing Packaging Design
According to Hurley, when studying a consumer’s eye movements, different metrics can tell various stories, which can then be used to influence a package’s design. For example, he says that for a brand that offers a large range of products, understanding the number of times a consumer fixates on a product can be highly valuable. In pharmaceutical or OTC markets, where consumers often compare and contrast the various items on shelf, it can be highly beneficial for brands to be able to draw a consumer’s attention back to a product after glancing elsewhere.
Another valuable metric that Hurley has researched is the “time to first fixation,” which measures how long it takes for consumers to first view a package. Hurley explains that this data can help a brand understand what initially draws consumers to a package, such as whether it’s a brand’s initial messaging, or if it’s the information surrounding a product’s benefits and features.
But Hurley says a third metric, “total fixation duration,” is often the best indication of how well a product will sell. Hurley explains that the best designed packages that utilize data to inform their design hierarchies often result in obtaining consumers’ attention for longer periods of time, within the context of the product category. According to research conducted at the CUshop, this metric is exceptionally useful in determining if a product will be purchased.
“We’ve run linear regression analysis of our attention data and it’s 85% correlated with actual market sales,” Hurley says. “So, the amount of time shoppers spend looking at an individual package is related to its sales viability.”
While the value that can be derived from the data emerging from the CUshop has obvious benefits for brand owners and packaging designers, Hurley explains package printers and converters can also benefit from exploring the consumer trends that eye-tracking reveals.
From a package design standpoint, he says many of the latest innovations stem from packaging suppliers. Because printers and converters have in-depth knowledge of their consumables, substrates and printing processes, they know what can feasibly be created in their facilities. Adding additional understanding of consumer trends and behaviors to a packaging manufacturer’s arsenal can make them an even more attractive partner to a brand owner customer.
“Brands every day are dropping creative teams and agency contracts,” Hurley says. “They are pushing creative and innovation research onto their packaging suppliers as this is one of the few, if not the only, mediums brands are able to modify to engage and delight consumers. If you want to be a top-tier supplier, you need to bring innovation to the table.”
From a technological standpoint, the rising use of digital printing in packaging has allowed brands to increase their SKU counts, as cost-effective printing of short runs has provided the ability for brands to expand their product lines.
Cullen says that two key consumer trends for brands to be aware of are the desires for convenience and having a variety of options to choose from, which can require a balanced approach to packaging. She explains that while consumers don’t want to feel intimidated by the number of products on shelf, there is value in providing the element of surprise to a consumer through new offerings. Of particular importance, she says, is ensuring that if a consumer does have a question about a product, that they can easily find an answer to it. Incorporating a highly informative packaging design can help guide consumers to their purchase decision.
“I think it’s critical for it not to be overwhelming for people,” Cullen says. “But people do want to be surprised, so there’s definitely that balance.”
The Ecommerce Equation
As online shopping continues to cut into the retail market share of brick and mortar outlets, Lindner explains the role of packaging has undergone a transition, due to the inherent differences ecommerce provides. Specifically, he explains that the aesthetics of packaging become secondary to how well a package protects a product.
For example, Lindner details that data he has collected shows that slightly more than 10% of online beauty product consumers add a product to the cart because the packaging appeals to them. In the food and beverage market, that number is only slightly higher, at around 20%.
With the combination of graphic design of packaging having less impact on consumers shopping online, and the increased risk of damage to a product as it passes through ecommerce channels, Lindner explains that structural integrity becomes the packaging design attribute that best adheres to consumers’ needs.
“Packaging in ecommerce has to be designed to withstand a ton of potential abuse,” Lindner says. “What I mean by that is by the time a product is made to when it gets to the consumer’s home, it’s getting touched by somewhere around two dozen or more people. … It’s got to be durable and it’s got to keep everything in one piece.”
While durability of packaging is essential to ensuring products arrive at consumers’ homes intact, packaging manufacturers can also leverage their sustainability attributes to help a brand tell a positive story for their consumers. Lindner explains that consumers always want to discover more information about the products and brands they are investing in.
Since consumers are increasingly interested in supporting brands that value sustainability practices, he explains brands that share the story of their environmentally-friendly packaging on their websites, or even on the packaging itself can be highly beneficial.
“Online shoppers are always looking for more information,” Lindner says. “They want to know about a product’s origins, they want product images and videos. For retailers and brands, it costs nothing really to have a section that says, ‘We only use eco-friendly packaging,’ or ‘Here are some recycling centers near you where you can take your packaging if you want to recycle it.’”
Though consumer behaviors are constantly evolving and the way they react to packaging can vary, package printers that understand the latest consumer trends and data will be in the best position to help their brand owner customers.
“Instead of going with a gut feel on something, leverage data to make a decision at that high level,” Hurley says.