The market for ecommerce goods has changed drastically over the last decade. The demand for product packaging solutions to handle shipping and logistics, as well as to create a unique customer touchpoint, has grown alongside it, with a total market value of $61.55 billion dollars expected by 2025.
For ecommerce businesses, shipping and fulfillment represents the most direct touch point and connection with a customer. It also happens to be one of the most underused marketing opportunities.
Packaging came out of a need to protect products during the shipping process, but focusing solely on function means you might be overlooking the potential marketing impact of your packaging. Done well, the right packaging and unboxing experience is a chance to deliver a functional product and create a memorable moment for your customers.
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What is product packaging?
Product packaging is the process of designing, evaluating, and producing a container for your products. Many online retailers create a branded product packaging experience to delight customers and improve profitability.
In total, a branded packaging experience is a thoughtful selection of shipping and type of packaging materials in addition to the way you choose to present your shipped products. Its purpose is to provide additional value for your customer and your business by way of creating a positive first impression of your brand identity—ideally, one that’s both memorable and shareable.
Importance of product packaging design
Online stores have fewer touch points to deliver delight compared to physical retail. The advantage of the efficiency of online shopping can come at the cost of the tactile, hands-on experience with a product before making a purchase. That’s why it’s important to pay special attention to the touch points you do have available to create a memorable brand experience for customers and set yourself apart from competitors.
Packaging has become an extension of your brand for online retailers. Take Apple, for example. The brand is known for high-end, glossy, and refined products, just like the package it is shipping. While not all business owners have the budget of Apple, you can incorporate different, less costly ways to delight customers at every stage of the journey.
Seed, a direct-to-consumer retailer selling probiotic supplements, uses simple yet delightful packaging made from mushrooms that dissolves underwater—an excellent touch for its target audience of eco-conscious buyers.
Fundamentally, people like sharing great experiences they’ve had. Search for "unboxing” on Google and you’ll find countless blog posts, images, and videos. Many of those pieces of content were created by customers, further helping a brand launch and get its name out to more people.
Building a long-term, growing brand means bringing customers back time and time again. Repeat customers will spend more with your business, and investing in retention and customer loyalty can move you off of the acquisition treadmill where you’re always trying to find new customers.
Types of product packaging
Before you can ship your products, you’ll need to package them for safe transport. There are a few common options for utility focused packaging:
Unless you’re shipping a very small or ultra durable item, most products will require some type and size of box to protect the order for safe transport, as well as some form of stuffing or product cushioning.
Some types of ecommerce packages are:
1. Corrugated boxes
These are still the most typical type of product packaging used by retailers. They’re sturdy, don’t add weight to your packages, and can be recycled. You can also use double-walled corrugated boxes to provide extra strength and durability for heavier weight items.
Here are some examples of mailing boxes retailers can use to ship products:
2. Padded mailers
These packages are best for shipping smaller, flat, or delicate items such as jewelry, handcrafted goods, books, or electronics. You can add extra protection with recyclable paper or bubble wrap, though the latter is a less eco-friendly option for packing.
3. Bags and envelopes
If you sell more light but not fragile products, you can use poly mailers, Tyvek envelopes, or plastic mailing bags to ship your goods. They are lightweight, strong, easy to store, and self-sealing, which makes shipping small orders or boxes easier, whether from home or a warehouse. You can also easily customize them to fit your brand and use zero-waste alternatives through companies like Hero Packaging.
4. Custom product packaging
Custom boxes are a great way to create a unique unboxing experience and show customers what you value. There are tons of options for printing and customizing on everything from the tissue to gift wrap, printed fonts, packing slips, and more. Plus, you can print all over your box to present your brand in new ways and create a satisfying experience for your customers.
East Coast Packaging is a popular choice for packaging materials, offering over 1,300 sizes of product boxes, bubble mailers, cartons, and package cushioning. There are also apps like Arka on the Shopify App Store you can use for your custom packaging needs. We’ve also provided many more resources for mailer boxes and cushioning later in the resource section of this chapter.
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How to create a custom packaging experience
Many elements must work in tandem when creating a well-designed branded packaging and unboxing experience, but you don’t have to include every available option.
Rather, decide which packaging solutions for small businesses deliver the best experience and most value for your customers. Strategically investing in a handful of these product packaging supplies can go a long way in creating an unboxing experience your customers won’t soon forget.
Note: Shopify Fulfillment Network puts your brand first. Businesses can send in packing instructions, including your custom packaging and products inserts, and warehouses will ensure a consistent unboxing experience. Apply to the Shopify Fulfillment Network to learn more.
The most significant element to consider is the main ecommerce shipping container. Depending on your product, this might be a box, bag, or poly mailer. White and brown corrugated packaging options once ruled as the sole option because they’re cheap, sturdy, and get the job done, but they may not create the first impression you’re looking for.
Is your brand eco-friendly? You can opt for biodegradable packaging alternatives using compressed fibers from mushroom filament and coconut. For example, you could use compostable mailers made from corn rather than plastic poly mailers.
While the actual package represents the most significant opportunity to create a “wow” experience, it can come at a comparatively high price.
2. Tissue paper
Wrapping your products in tissue paper adds an extra level of excitement by building another layer of anticipation into the unboxing experience. Custom-printed tissue or colored tissue paper are both solid options to consider.
Traditional filler types included Styrofoam packing peanuts, foam inserts, air pillows, or bubble wrap. Although popping bubble wrap is a long-cherished pastime for some of us, it isn’t visually appealing and won’t provide a premium feel. Other forms of packing filler worth considering include crinkle paper (colored or brown) and excelsior (wood fibers).
Stickers are a useful option, as they’re versatile and fairly inexpensive. If you use tissue paper, a branded sticker can also seal the paper together. Or, instead of custom printing on your box, try using stickers as a way to brand your packages on a budget.
You may also want to include a few extra stickers, paired with a short note, as a way to thank your customers for their purchase.
5. Promotional material or a business card
Business cards offer a cost-effective way of adding small promo pieces to your package. Remember, they don’t have to mimic the aesthetics of corporate business cards.
For example, Haus sends packaging inserts, such as printed newsletters, in its shipments. Because of the nature of its product, this printed content serves as reading material that deepens the brand’s relationship with customers.
You can also include a personal note or special instructions to help customers get more value out of your product—the possibilities are endless and relatively inexpensive.
6. Packing slip
It’s standard to include a receipt or packing slip in your package, but many businesses don’t use this as a branding or marketing opportunity.
At a high-end restaurant, for instance, the receipt is delivered at the right time, usually presented to the diner in an elegant way or inside a closed folder. Place the receipt and packing slip in the package at a point that makes sense, as it's not the first thing a customer necessarily wants to see when they open the package.
When you print a packing slip on Shopify, you can customize its contents and product packaging design by adding or removing elements, like your logo or product images, using Liquid, a template language created by Shopify. You might also consider including a coupon code on your packing slip to encourage repeat purchases.
7. Custom note
Though handwritten notes may be tricky to scale, new businesses are fighting to earn every customer. Connecting with shoppers through a personal, genuine note or card can make all the difference—handwritten messages, like the following one from Journ, show customers you care and that there are real people powering your brand.
8. Educational materials
If you sell products that need a little “how-to,” add instructions inside your packaging. You want to make sure your customers understand exactly how to use the product for their specific needs, so getting started is easy. Looking at Journ again, it really nails this with the helpful instruction sheets it includes for each product.
When we’re unsure where to start with something, we tend to put it off. We stick to what’s comfortable and routine. To become that routine, your product needs to be the easy go-to option for your customer.
Sharing educational materials with customers shows that you care about their experience, builds trust, and communicates that you support your product even after purchase.
Pick the clear packaging tape and keep moving, right? Not necessarily! These days, you have a variety of colorful tape options to complement your custom packing, no matter what color palette your brand uses. You can also create branded tape, à la Amazon, for instant brand recognition.
10. Sample or gift
Based on the customer’s current purchase or purchase history, you may also consider including a free sample of another product. Ideally, you’ll choose something your shopper is likely to be interested in. For example, if they purchased shampoo, throw in a small sample of complementary conditioner. This tactic can help you cross-sell by introducing a customer to new products.
Resources for custom branded packaging
If you’re looking for custom packaging material to create a great branded unboxing experience for your customers, take a look below at our shortlist of some great suppliers of various types of packaging:
- Custom Boxes Now
- Any Box Today
- Refine Packaging
- Box Geek
- Custom Boxes And Packaging
- Inke (Australia)
- InstaBox (Canada)
Envelopes and Mailers
Product packaging costs
A downside to a custom branded packaging experience can be the associated cost. These expenses include both time and price.
You’ll need to decide based on your average order size and profit margins what options are financially feasible, along with which present the greatest value to your business and customers.
Custom boxes and mailers tend to be the most expensive costs involved in creating a custom branded unboxing experience.
To have your own custom printed boxes, you may be looking at a minimum order of 500+ and a cost of $5–$25 per box. Poly mailers will range from $0.25–$3 per printed mailer, depending on your order size—but you can order as few as 10 at a time with some suppliers. On top of that, consider that ecommerce boxes will add more total weight to your shipment than a poly mailer.
If your products don’t need the protection of a box, it can be worth opting for lighter packaging to save on the total cost. You can also opt for eco-friendly packaging and shipping solutions, from using compostable mailers and reducing packaging size to lower costs and align with more eco-conscious consumers.
Being creative can help you save on costs and achieve similar results. Consider pre-designed colored ecommerce boxes from places like Arka to help with your packaging needs. These shipping boxes come with much lower minimum orders and prices—as little as 25 boxes, and prices vary depending on size.
Another option is to search AliExpress, where very similar colored boxes can be purchased with a minimum order of 50 units for sometimes less than $0.39 each (depending on size) and free shipping to most countries.
If you wanted to further customize the experience, you can consider adding printed stickers with your logo from a service like Sticker Giant or a similar service.
In almost every case, the greater your order size for the various packaging materials, the cheaper the cost. Strategically plan which items to use and place larger orders to bring costs down. Additionally, consider the impact of any weight discrepancies when looking at the overall cost of your packaging. Higher weights mean higher costs to ship, which can impact your shipping strategy as a whole.
What is ecommerce packaging?
Ecommerce packaging is the packaging that is used to ship a product to the consumer after they purchase it online. Ecommerce packaging includes the outer container, infill material, and any other inserts. This packaging should adhere to a merchant's brand guidelines.
Best ecommerce packaging examples
To improve your ecommerce packaging design, we’ve highlighted some creative ideas for shipping you can steal from top ecommerce brands.
Caraway Home is a direct-to-consumer retailer that sells well-designed, non-toxic ceramic cookware online. So it’s natural it focuses on sustainable packaging practices. The brand uses recycled materials with zero-plastic bags, low-impact print dyes, and 100% biodegradable cork trivets to package and ship goods.
Caraway also includes a welcome booklet with orders, made from recycled paper, along with messages printed directly on the packaging that help customers experience each lid, pan, and storage unit that come in the box.
Overall, what stands out about Caraway’s ecommerce packaging is how organized and on-brand the experience is. Considering its main cookware set goes for $395, once you receive your package, you know you made the right investment for your kitchen.
TrunkClub is a subscription-box company that takes the customer unboxing experience seriously. To start, instead of choosing a standard box sealed with clear packaging tape, it opted for a custom printed box with a handle that resembles a trunk, closely matching and accentuating its brand.
From the moment a trunk from TrunkClub arrives at your doorstep, you know you’re in for a great experience—and one you can’t wait to open.
Inside the trunk, the contents are thoughtfully laid out to create a presentation and experience. To further build a custom branded experience for its customers, all orders include a handwritten card from a personal stylist explaining the selection of products. It truly makes you feel part of something special and exclusive.
In a time where ecommerce packaging trends are colorful, vibrant, and larger than life, Haus does the exact opposite. It strips down its packaging to a simple white cardboard box with a newsprint insert that gives customers insight into how the product is made, cocktail recipes, and frequently asked questions.
This let Haus focus on developing packaging and product with an aesthetic-first vision. Helena Hambrecht, Haus’s co-founder, tells Forbes in a recent interview, “We were able to rethink the bottle’s whole purpose. We decided we wanted to go with the home decor angle and break from tradition to create something that would really blend in with peoples homes.”
If you look at Haus’s Twitter feed, you’ll notice a variety of customers posting pictures of both the product packaging and the unboxing experience.
Otherland is an up-and-coming startup known for its selection of beautifully packaged and fragranced candles. Otherland’s founder, Abigail Cook Stone, the former art buyer for Ralph Lauren stores, understands the importance of visuals in our lives and built one of the most noteworthy ecommerce packaging boxes on the market.
Some Otherland boxes, like the Mother’s Day example above, are only available for limited promo periods—which keeps customers engaged and excited by the brand. But whether you get a seasonal or base collection box, you’ll always experience familiar bright pops of color and delicious candle scents upon opening.
Otherland always uses quality materials and a striking presentation to create a memorable branded unboxing experience for its customers.
Allbirds is an ecommerce brand selling comfy shoes made from environmentally sound products, like tree fiber and sugar cane. It goes the extra mile in its packaging boxes to add product value and personality that reflects its eco-friendly footwear.
There’s a lot to love when opening up a pair of Allbirds:
- Cool printed illustration
- Packaging insert with brand messaging
- Made from recyclable materials and soy inks
- Molded shoe inserts with a smiley face
- Holes for carrying handles
- On-brand, whimsical package design
All the details in the Allbirds unboxing experience are focused on creating a seamless experience, from the shipping label to inks and pulp shoe inserts. It’s playful and functional, just like the Allbirds brand, and creates an experience customers won’t forget.
Unwrapped Life sells sustainable for your hair, body, and home with a mission to get as close to zero-waste as possible. They go against the grain to offer packaging that is minimal and compostable to align with their values.
Unwrapped’s signature conditioner and shampoo bars also come wrapped in compostable paper, so there’s virtually no waste. Plus, the natural brown colors bring a sense of warmth, strength, and comfort to the unboxing experience, with a little extra touch of sophistication.
The company's entire packaging process is completely paperless, taking orders by phone or tablets without any packaging slips. They continue working to find fulfillment centers that commit to their zero-waste and no-plastic policies to lower the brands carbon footprint.
We wanted to ensure that any products from our company have very limited to no impact at their end of life.
Make your unboxing experience worth remembering
Creating a memorable unboxing experience can be the competitive edge your business needs to not only generate repeat purchases but also attract new customers. Andy Dunn, the founder of Bonobos says it best:
“At the end of the day, you’re not building an ecommerce company, you’re building a brand that has ecommerce as its core distribution channel.”
Take the next few days to reassess your packaging. Consider how much you’re currently spending, your return policy, your average order size and profit margins and assess what you can do to deliver a better customer experience.
As you prepare for the upcoming BFCM shopping season, make sure you have sufficient supplies on hand, appropriately sized boxes, and enough product labels, stickers, notes, etc. It may also be a nice touch to add holiday-themed thank you notes or cards or stickers in your retail packaging to delight your customers. For more tips, check out our holiday shipping guide to survive and profit during the seasonal rush.
Illustration by Gracia Lam
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FAQ: Ecommerce packaging
What is ecommerce-ready packaging?
Ecommerce-ready packaging refers to packaging guidelines set by warehouses (including Amazon) that regulate a package's size, efficiency, and how it protects a product.
What is the concept of packaging?
Packaging refers to enclosing or protecting products to keep them safe during distribution, storage, shipping, and sales. Packaging is also the art and science of graphic design and producing packages for your brand.
What are the best packaging types?
- Poly bags
- Corrugated boxes
- Paper bags
- Paperboard boxes
- Plastic boxes
- Padded mailers
- Rigid boxes
- Custom boxes