Ecommerce packaging: Insights from industry expert Bob Makofsky

Ecommerce packaging: Insights from industry expert Bob Makofsky

By PreScouter Editorial Team
Bob Makofsky, Co-Founder and General Manager of Conformer Products, Inc.

Bob Makofsky is an expert in packaging with almost two decades of experience, including an ecommerce specialty for the last five years. He has deep knowledge of USPS rules and rates, workflow optimization, and shipping cost reduction. Recently, Bob has developed smart packaging for ecommerce companies shipping small goods that cuts postage in half by shipping as USPS Flats, instead of Parcels. The company has developed packaging to ship all sorts of small items including personal grooming, beauty, tech devices, fashion accessories, and even home cleaning products. Bob has published articles in DM News, Parcel, Mail, Printing News, American Printer, and Multi-Channel Merchant and has been a speaker at Parcel Forum and the New York Postal Customer Council. Before working with Conformer Products, Bob was a Business Development Manager for a small tech startup.

Generally speaking, is the packaging used in ecommerce developed specifically for this application? Is there a trend to start designing specifically for ecommerce applications?

If we’re talking primary packaging, most companies take the exact same unit that would be on a retail display and put it in a package, and ship it via ecommerce instead of changing the packaging.

Part of it is because a lot of merchandise is shipped through third parties, the fulfillment is done through a third party, or the warehouse that holds the inventory is shipping to retail stores and they’re also shipping the ecommerce orders. Brands often simplify their packaging and just have one primary package that works for everything.

We try to sell people on creating ecommerce-specific packaging all the time. If we can do a custom outer mailer piece, they don’t need to include as much primary packaging around the merchandise. I don’t see a lot of it happening.

What we often see is that this falls into the department of the buyer; and the buyer is very focused on price, and they don’t always look at the larger picture of all costs that go into the fulfillment and shipping experience.

The ecommerce part is, surprisingly, an afterthought in most cases. It is a bigger area for opportunity.

What new developments focused on materials for ecommerce packaging has the pandemic brought?

I don’t think it’s so much considering the pandemic, but the big one is plastic-free packaging. All the major sellers are pushing that. They want that in the outer shipping package and want it in the primary packaging as well.

One spot where I think you still see it is if you buy multiple pieces of clothing. Sellers are still going to put each piece in a plastic bag, and then each of those plastic bags go in a carton. You’re going to see those plastic bags disappearing over the next two years, hopefully, because it’s wasteful, it’s unnecessary, and in almost all cases it’s not recycled.

Customers want 100% paper-based packaging. We should be using a whole lot more paper. It’s renewable. Most packaging is not 100% recycled content. Recycled content paperboard is typically too soft a substrate for this application. Most paper-based packaging is either a blend of virgin and recycled paper, or all virgin paper.

How do the following packaging innovations relate to materials and ecommerce specifically?

a. Lighter durable packaging:

There’s a trend for smaller packaging. First, it’s smaller, and then, secondarily, lighter. Lighter packaging saves money for the buyer because they’re buying less paper content. If they can make the packaging of thinner paper, it costs less for them.

The shipping cost is far greater than the materials cost. All of the major carriers in the US create pricing structures that primarily drive the price down for the size of the package. Then, if your package is under 1 pound, the price per weight becomes more important. Brands are pushing for lighter- and lighter-weight materials because it saves money on postage.

Packaging specifically designed to fit contents is more durable. There are a lot of silly designs out there that don’t really hold up very well or are expensive to manufacture. There are smarter ways to design packaging that won’t break down. One of the ways is by creating packaging that’s fitted to what you’re shipping so that you don’t have a lot of empty space inside the packaging. That has been a big trend over the past four years. When you’re shipping a small piece of merchandise inside a much larger package, that’s one of the easiest ways for packages to break down. Oversized packaging is happening less and less, and that’s being driven by the rates of carriers.

b. Improved security:

When most people are talking about security these days, it’s about merchandise being stolen from people’s doorsteps. It’s not packages being opened in the mail stream and having merchandise taken out of packages. The brands can’t really do very much about theft off a doorstep.

Certainly, with COVID, we’ve seen a lot of curbside pickups where you can order your merchandise online and then drive up to the store and pick it up. That will get rid of some of the different door thefts. In urban environments, it’s a real challenge.

c. Ease of assembly:

It’s certainly important in an environment where they’re fulfilling thousands of packages. Usually, a company is shipping thousands of different items, and they’re trying to fit them all into 15 different packaging options. They tend to go for oversized packages that are bulky and don’t fit well but are easy to fulfill.

There are a lot of ways to do it automated with machinery, but usually that machinery is not very flexible. Usually, it’s people filling packages by hand. You can get into automation if you’re shipping one thing or if you’re shipping just a handful of different things.

d. Materials from renewable sources:

There are some corn-based plastics. They’re not used very much. I’m also seeing some mushroom-based void fill. Instead of using bubble wrap or other airbags and carton-filling materials, companies can grow mushrooms. Manufacturers can grow fungus inside molds. It doesn’t work great if the merchandise you’re shipping is low value because it costs too much to do it. There are limited applications for it.

Recycled papers or blends of virgin and recycled papers are a great option for shipping packaging. 100% recycled content papers have some applications, though they are limited. Recycled paper tends to be softer and heavier/densely packed. The mailer itself would be softer, and it could break down in the mail stream because the fibers are shorter.

e. Improving the barrier properties of packaging paper:

Some wax-based materials and coatings can go on paper and make them water- and grease-resistant. We used to have a product where it was laminated, where you’re literally applying a sheet of plastic and heat sealant onto the paper, which works great, except it makes it completely not recyclable.

f. Experience when opening the package:

It’s huge. However, a lot of companies have really poor unboxing experience.

If you go into a retail store in a shopping mall, inside the door there’s someone that says “Hi, how are you? Can I help you?” They’re sending you in the right direction, there’s a scent and music is playing, and people are being cheerful. Then you go to the checkout counter and someone asks you, “Did you find everything you wanted?” They package up your stuff in tissue paper and put it in a bag and they hand you your shopping bag. 

Then there’s the online experience, which I find absurd in comparison. The customer orders their merchandise through the website for the same prices that they’re going to get in the retail shopping experience. The company ships this out in a polybag with an invoice printed out, a receipt inside the package, and that’s it. There’s no experience.

A lot of companies miss the mark, where there’s a disconnect between the marketing department, which wants to do all those promotion codes and talk about the next greatest product they’re launching, and the buyer, who is tasked with buying the cheapest packaging possible. Those two departments don’t communicate.

Most of my customers don’t have retail stores. They’re entirely online. So that physical experience of interacting with the merchandise, especially when they first open it, is critical.

Which packaging developments focused specifically on this market would be needed to grow ecommerce?

It’s probably reiterating what I’ve just said. It’s the disconnection between the buyer and the marketing teams of their companies where they miss the mark, and there’s too much focus on acquiring the cheapest thing possible to get the job done when it comes to ecommerce.

I think that’s a real mistake. It’s a mistake for social media, because when you have a cool buyer experience, that reinforces the brand. There’s no worse buying experience than when you just receive a carton at home with your new merchandise in a plastic bag and there’s nothing else, and it shocks me how often that’s the norm, that there’s no experience.

So yes, I think there’s a huge amount of room for improvement with custom packaging.

This excerpt was taken from our Intelligence Brief “Innovations in Ecommerce Packaging.” The full report can be viewed here.

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