Seth Hicks, managing director at Westpak Group, looks at the inevitable changes in consumer behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic and how this has affected the food packaging industry.

With the vaccine roll-out well underway and with dates provisionally marked in for the removal of lockdown measures for many, how will food packaging need to adapt to a ‘return to normality’? This could largely depend on whether consumer habits shaped by lockdown will continue after restrictions are lifted, or if consumers will be desperate to return to a more ‘open’ shopping experience.

For instance, while many are eagerly awaiting the chance to abandon their masks during their weekly food shop, others may feel quite anxious at the prospect of an unrestricted shopping environment. For those keen to return to a pre-covid consumer mindset, the grocery retail experience could see a number of initiatives rekindled.

Unpackaged produce displays reminiscent of open-air markets were arguably becoming increasingly mainstream in their application, as was the utilisation of less restrictive and often more environmentally friendly packaging.

But what if the consumer mindset has been more permanently adjusted to viewing supermarkets as potentially harmful environments? To reassure such consumers, grocery chains may need to utilise packaging that reinforces a sense of sterilisation and cleanliness above all else.

Another key consideration will be the ongoing role of home delivery of grocery goods and the extent to which this forms our shopping experience. Is it possible that consumers have developed a preference or dependence on home delivery services? In this case, rigidity and ease of transport would become top priorities for packaging design.

But could the design of food packaging be altered further still? If products become less relevant to the physical shopping experience and sell themselves increasingly via online channels, will their design considerations be adjusted accordingly? More interestingly still, would this enable packaging designers to place a greater emphasis on more sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging credentials?

Adjustments may also be needed in-line with surges in demand for certain items that grew in popularity during lockdown. For example, Tesco recently reported a noticeable increase in popularity for vegetables which it largely attributed to consumers spending more time creating home-cooked meals under lockdown restrictions.

These trends will, again, depend on how much of a legacy effect is created, which may of course fade over time. Will our boosted demand for greens continue to build momentum or will consumers revert to convenient alternatives such as ready meals and take-aways?

One key development that looks unstoppable, however, is the move towards an ever-increasing focus on sustainability. Regardless of the other factors that shape consumer habits, food packaging will need to ensure that sustainability remains a central focus in its design and presentation. Tesco recently announced that during 2020 it had successfully removed over one billion pieces of plastic from its UK business alone.

Perhaps the unifying factor across all of these potential areas for change is the need for a highly adaptable and agile approach in packaging design. Businesses across the supply chains for grocery and foodservice industries will need to be ready to respond to changing consumer preferences as seamlessly as possible.