How can packaging help to create a successful omnichannel strategy? We speak to Uwe Melichar, president of the European Brand & Packaging Design Association to get his take on the role packaging can play.

What are, in your opinion, the biggest advantages of creating packaging for an omnichannel environment, rather than creating separate packs for retail and e-commerce? Conversely, what are the disadvantages?

The bigger the product is (especially in non-food) the more important it is to have a package that suits both channels. It needs the right balance of protection, impression and communication. In e-commerce, the product features and benefits have already been communicated online and no further information is needed on pack, whilst in brick-and-mortar stores the packaging has to sell the product.

We have to overcome the situation that well-packed goods have to be put into another box to make it ready-to-ship. This is a real challenge, but an exciting one. There is still a lot of room for improvement. I am currently working for a manufacturer of rather big, delicate and shock sensitive items. Protection is key but the right dramaturgy for the unboxing process is also very important. If you open the package and the first thing you’re facing is the return voucher or the operating instructions, it’s the wrong message. The product is the hero and should be dramatised and staged.

But I can also imagine modular hybrid packaging solutions, where we solve the problem of having a box in a box by adding a ‘light‘ pack element to upgrade a shelf-pack for shipping. Think about colourful and impactful packaging that stands out in the stores. Integrating a shipping label (or even a space for it) ruins the design. Putting it into a bag for shipping doesn’t add much packaging material but solves the problem. For example, Paptic is a material from Finland that work very well in this respect. But there are many more ideas like this out there.

This also gives us a hint on the disadvantages of omnichannel packaging. If you are trying hard to make a beautiful package shippable you may ruin the design or vice versa. If you put a perfectly constructed e-commerce package on the shelf it’ll be invisible and dull. So in some respects it may be better to have two separate solutions, or the hybrid-modular pack as described!

In a well thought through branding strategy, how can different channels complement each other?

At first glance it seems rather simple. Online means orientation, overview, price comparison. Presence in stationary trade means inspiration, testing, trying on, sensual experiences. Looking deeper into the subject we have to take note of the complete touchpoint map and the various customer journeys and options.

For a branding strategy it means pushing the right triggers. To satisfy customers in a perfect way brands need to play on both channels with the best possible instruments. This orchestration cannot be regarded separately. Let’s have a look at a made-up example. A potential customer is inspired by  headphones on Instagram, is retargeted and sees them again in an ad, searches the web for the best price, goes to a store to check the sound and purchases them at an online store with the best price, most probably Amazon. Nowadays the major problems are for starters return policies: it’s too simple to order alternatives and send the stuff back customers don’t want (for free). Stores are not rewarded for consultation. Seamless purchase is not possible yet. In the future we’ll have showrooms with a small footprint in different locations and a seamless shopping experience through both channels. Packaging will have an even more important role as it may be the first touchpoint for the customer.

What challenges have to be overcome to create an engaging pack?

It’s important to balance out product safety, function, aesthetics and sustainability. This applies to all packages, whether they are designed for shipping or for stores, or both. We have to keep an eye on our health and our environment. It is majorly important to use as little packaging material as possible and we need to find the right choice of healthy material and the right production. Nevertheless, a package has to communicate in a storytelling way, needs a good structure and a brilliant design.

On a broad level, what makes an engaging packaging for an omnichannel environment? Modularity and simplicity are key. In many cases manufacturers have no influence on the retail channel. Retailers are selling their products on and offline, there are resellers and major platforms in between brand and customer. The more flexible the packaging, the easier it is to distribute.

Could you talk about any examples of successful designs you have seen?

There are several good examples of omnichannel packages in the market, for example Beiersdorf with their ‘Nivea Care Box‘ or from the Austrian brand MAM that puts their small soothers and baby products in a cute silkscreen printed box for shipping. I also appreciate Samsung’s efforts. They are using ‘ready to ship‘ packages and recently launched a competition for the big cardboard boxes,  asking for the best second-life solutions for their packages. People created 3D animals, a shelf or a magazine rack out of the empty boxes.

E-commerce has received a big boost through the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think that packaging can play a part in en4cing consumers back to brick and mortar stores, for example through adding extra functionality?

Packaging has played an inglorious role through the implications of COVID-19. The return to the ‘To-Go-Cup‘ and to single-use plastic plates, bags and boxes due to hygienic reasons, as well as millions and millions of shipping cartons are creating enormous mountains of rubbish. But there are many good examples showing the positive examples of packaging that can help enticing consumers to shop ‘offline‘ or that have special functionalities. One example is a face mask packaging that has a special lamination to stop the spread of bacteria. The material from Derprosa is called ‘BacterStop‘ and I can see this or a similar varnish for many other products as well. Or take Lush as an example. It’s not the packaging but the overall experience of entering a Lush store. The smell, the choice, the staging of the product and the service and checkout… No packaging is needed at all. But if you want to make it a gig there are optional boxes or paper pulp containers available for purchase. Other examples that really add value for bringing customers back to the stores (when they are finally open again) are luxury products like perfumes, champagne, confectionary or wine. There are many products that wouldn’t have any recognition without packaging. Their outer shell is part of the brand story and defines the product. These multi sensual experience stories are hard to be told online. You need to see and touch it.

Sustainability is of course one of the ongoing key discussion points in the packaging industry. Do you see potential for refill and return systems as part of an omnichannel strategy?

Absolutely yes. The bespoke ‘Loop‘ concept from Terracycle is a perfect example. I believe that it’s not working well today as the choice of products is rather small, but I can see this in a broader scale. There is a huge potential in refill and return systems paired with services. The English milk man gives us the blueprint for more of those concepts. In the UK ‘Milk & More‘ offers a curated offer of fresh local sourced dairy products delivered to the customers door. ‘Packaging as a Service’ is also the idea of Finnish company RePack. Their resistant bags can be used several times and the offer includes cleaning and free return service via regular mail boxes. It’s a system and already in use by big retailers and stores in Germany, Finland, the US and the Netherlands as a combination of packaging, shipping and maintenance. Other reusable packaging systems are offered by companies such as ‘The Box‘, ‘Cup Club‘, ‘vytal‘ and ‘Kamupak‘.

How do you see the future of omnichannel?

Omnichannel will be the new normal. The boundaries between the different sales channels will blur and we’ll get used to a completely seamless shopping experience. There are many good examples that already exist. Amazon opens their 4-star stores and many retailers and brands coming from brick and mortar (like H&M or Adidas) have already functional and exciting online shops and are present on platforms. If they all manage even better to deliver the perfect match between showroom, online services and inspiration, we’re basically there.