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Trends in packaging: the view from the aisles


At Miraclon, we dedicated the first quarter of the year looking at the impact that changing consumer habits are having on packaging print. Now, several months into the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we've returned to these themes to see how consumer habits have been affected...

During the first quarter of 2020, we were exploring some of the long-run trends in consumer habits and the impact on packaging print. We spoke to Olga Munroe, Head of the Retail Institute at Leeds University, to find out more about these trends and impacts, including demand for sustainable substrates and the need to communicate value in e-commerce packs.


As the impacts of Covid-19 have been felt around the world, everyone’s lives have been affected, including changes to how people are shopping and the demands on packaging print. We’ve returned to the five trends we first explored in March 2020 to look at how some changes are temporary, and some new rules and habits could become the norm…

People Have Conflicting Needs

According to the Retail Review members’ magazine, the trend of mindfulness, health, and physical and mental wellbeing among consumers is still gaining momentum, with ethically-minded people demanding sustainable, free-from and plant-based ranges. But this isn’t straightforward. “In argument with those conscious behaviours, we’re continuing to see the need for convenience among busy consumers too,” says Olga. The challenge for packaging is to communicate that it’s holistically ‘good’ while being built for those hectic modern lifestyles.

Consumer Response To The Pandemic

“Restrictions in movement and closures of food outlets, other than supermarkets, resulted in panic buying; a phenomenon frequently observed during natural disasters or humanitarian crises,” says Olga. This stockpiling focused on non-perishable groceries and cleaning products. However, survey data from the Global Web Index (GWI) shows some consumers in the UK and US were sticking to the same buying patterns (baby boomers), with higher earners actually spending more.

There has also been an “increase in sales for health and wellness products”, says Olga. “The health trend has been prevalent before the pandemic and is likely to continue”.

Packaging Is A Key Part Of Sustainability

As they become increasingly aware of sustainability issues, consumers need to know that their decision to buy a product has a positive environmental outcome, or is at least causing no damage.

The Retail Institute expects to see many more announcements from retailers and brand owners in 2020 detailing their actions to reduce their reliance on plastic. And they’ll be reducing the amount of packaging in general, as packaging becomes part of a more holistic analysis of the lifecycle impact of a given product. “Over-packaging in an online environment is seen as a huge challenge,” says Olga. “Shortly, we might see a more holistic approach to understanding ‘green’ pack credentials that goes beyond materials – with considerations for lightweight designs, water use during production or CO2 emissions during transportation of products. More complex criteria, aligned with Life Cycle Assessment tools, are likely to come into play in the future when we evaluate how environmentally friendly the end product is.”

The Sustainability Of E-commerce Packaging

Thanks to the continued, rapid, rise of online shopping, says Olga, “expectations around packaging will change”. “We’ll see the reduction of material being used, more innovative formats and opening solutions, and greater use of sustainable inks. Brands will be reducing the weight, and making the packs simpler to recycle.” This will require creative solutions from converters. Consumers will associate certain types and colors of print with different levels of environmental damage. “If you use a certain type of ink on a cardboard box you might be communicating to the consumer that your product is not eco-friendly,” says Olga. “And if you have an interior packaging effect, that as we know contributes to the consumer first ‘moment of truth’ but for example feels very plastic-like, you may be communicating the opposite to what you would have if you’d used the same ink with a matt effect. There may be a different combination of materials and inks that create a more consistent sustainability message for consumers that enhances your environmental efforts, contributes to your brand credentials and sets positive sensory cues.

Sustainability On Hold?

A combination of reduced recycling – in part due to the closure of recycling centers – and increased orders of packaged goods has impacted the direction of many sustainability efforts to reduce single-use plastic. “A recent study from International Food Information Council showed that 43% of survey respondents said that they buy more packaged goods, however there is no insights into whether that’s due to retailers removing an option of fresh loose produce or consumer perceptions of foods being protected by plastics,” says Olga.

“Microbial coatings are a popular area many businesses are looking at and innovating in. Safety and material recyclability, rather than complete removal of packaging, might be a trend going forward,” she adds.

Simple Packaging Needs To Stand Out

When it comes to packaging, the trend towards simplified, minimalist designs to communicate premiumization, will continue. We can also expect a continued drive towards authenticity in packaging, related to provenance and heritage values, with high-quality packaging materials that help brands stand out. Communicating environmental credentials, whilst preserving premium cues is an interesting area of innovation.

Finally, we’ll see a rise in what the Retail Institute calls ‘extraordinary differentiations’. “In order to draw the eye and offer something different to the consumer, brands need to break the boundaries of their category when it comes to the visual attributes of their product,” says Olga. “The challenge is how to break some of the traditional, visual boundaries of your product category but remain recognisable to consumers? How to attract the eye with extraordinary differentiation of your product, but communicate clearly what one will find inside the pack? There is a balance to be struck.

Innovation In Online Packaging

When buying a product online, having potentially only seen it on screen, the customer’s real moment of truth with the product comes when they first hold the package at home. The challenge is, that sometimes communicating ‘green’ may also communicate lack of quality. If buying luxury perfume, say, shoppers may be disappointed to open a plain brown cardboard box with no premium cues inside that do not communicate product value efficiently.

As such, e-commerce represents a major opportunity for innovative packaging. Olga cites a good example from fashion. “One fashion brand is trialling a small tub that opens when the consumer pulls a little zip, and the product unrolls without any creases,” she says. “This is interactive, engaging and different, and has an element of discovery. Consumers tend to have set expectations for what they will find inside packaging: if the product matches up to expectations set on pack it leads to ‘sensorial congruency’ and increased customer satisfaction. In other words, the more satisfied the consumer is with their experience, the more likely they are to repeat the purchase.

Retail’s Big Shift Online

While the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 saw many retailers continuing efforts to improve their offering through sustainability efforts, the crisis has forced a huge increase in demand, particularly for grocery delivers.

“The adoption of online grocery shopping has been more prevalent among older consumers. It might be prudent to assume that due to social distancing measures, which are likely to continue for some time past 2020 (if no vaccine is widely available), we might see the most vulnerable group in our society remaining reliant online food delivery models,” says Olga. Whether this expansion – Amazon US added 100,000 deliver positions to its network – stays in place could impact the type and level of packaging online retailers need.

Regional spikes of the virus, as well as unconnected events, such as the UK’s exit from the European Union, could affect how these trends continue. “We might see other waves of the virus, and in the UK, any hard-Brexit is likely to the availability of goods. This could result in future spikes in demand. It might be prudent for businesses to have a contingency for such eventualities, from both the technical and human resource perspective,” she adds.

At the beginning of the year, the role of packaging on consumer expectations was key. The texture or ‘feel’ of the packaging materials and its print effects (haptics), its structural shape, vertical or horizontal orientation, sensory cues communicated by effective graphic design – were all elements that brands and converters were exploring. Great news for flexo, where printing on a variety of substrates, diversification and short print runs really play to its strengths.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has now had a huge impact on the flexo industry; businesses have worked hard to meet brand and consumer needs as the role of packaging has taken on a new focus and meaning. While some trends in consumer spending will fade as people’s lives and economies move out of lockdown restrictions, other shifts – such as online selling and high hygiene standards – could remain. It’s difficult to know exactly how it will evolve but flexo printers have proven they are able to step up to the plate in these challenging and changing circumstances.