What lessons has the industry learned from 2020 when it comes to e-commerce packaging, and how will these be built upon in the coming year? As e-commerce continues to boom, expectations on packaging are increasing, says Olivier Cottard, Global E-commerce and Industries Director at DS Smith Packaging.

The Covid-19 pandemic has propelled the growth of E-commerce and research shows that many of the online shopping habits European consumers adopted over lockdown are here to stay. This, together with changing demographics, access to fast broadband, advances in artificial intelligence and improvements in delivery infrastructure, will surely contribute to continued fast growth in 2021 and beyond.

At DS Smith, we work to anticipate our customers’ needs. Understanding the key trends and pain points per category is the starting point for our design and innovation agenda. There are growing categories where we see the need to offer more solutions for our customers in the next year, e.g. apparel, beauty & personal care, electronics, and food & groceries. For each category we see important packaging needs that must be addressed. Packaging producers have a responsibility, especially after the uptake in ecommerce, to ensure packaging is sustainable, contributes to an efficient supply chain and meets the needs of our customers.

Sustainable packaging is a topic which continues to remain front of mind for consumers, with increased E-commerce intensifying consumers’ concerns as packaging is delivered to our front step.

Products being over-packaged or delivered in non-recyclable materials can lead to strong criticism, complaints, and active public debate. Plastics are perceived to be the least sustainable form of packaging and brands, retailers and food producers are increasingly looking for more sustainable alternatives. We expect this trend to grow in 2021, and one example is the interest to replace plastic bags for apparel with paper-based solutions. Another is the growing online shopping of perishable groceries and meal kits, where we see opportunity for more sustainable and fully recyclable thermal insulation packs which eliminate problem plastic such as EPS foam.

However, sustainable packaging material is not a solution in itself to meet the growing demand for more sustainable solutions. We recently launched our Circular Design Principles, developed in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to ensure that we design packaging that is easy to recycle, uses no more material than necessary and considers the impact across the supply chain.

As volumes grow, customers need help to audit and improve their supply chains and how packaging can help improve efficiency against the numerous touchpoints through in the e-commerce supply cycle. A key area in 2021 will be the evolution of ‘the last mile’, with new delivery options and an increasing need to have packaging being fit for purpose. In several high-volume categories, a big challenge is around managing returns.  

We see brand owners increasingly developing their own online offerings. Our designers work with our customers to create packaging solutions that deliver on the brand promise and the unboxing experience, integrating the need for sustainable solutions that are meeting the returns expectations. We also observe a need for rationalizing the range of packs, whilst offering “right-size” and “multiple-size” packaging, using no more material than necessary and enabling effective transport.

In 2020, many businesses suddenly needed to adapt their e-commerce model to meet a steep increase in demand for home deliveries. Based on this fast evolution I predict an exciting year ahead with emerging ways to serve consumers through e-commerce and where packaging will play a central role, increasing the need to redefine packaging for a changing world.