How seasonal patterns and consumer trends can empower your packaging
When it comes to predicting consumer behavior, a crystal ball cannot compete with a calendar. Holidays, graduation, back-to-school promotions, and sports seasons all occur with a regularity that makes planning easy.
That very predictability also makes it increasingly difficult to stand out. What can you do to make sure your customers’ products get noticed when every other display, every other box on the shelf, is embracing the same Valentine’s Day colors or the same Christmas sparkle? “Structural design and graphics will help you stand out for the consumer,” notes Drew Gilchrist, president of Gilchrist Packaging, a sales and training consultancy. “You need a creative use of design to show the product. You also have to communicate very quickly. With graphic packaging, you can put so much on that it just clutters things up. Keep it simple. Consider highlighting just the top three key features on the front.”
Gilchrist encourages packagers to evaluate the seasonal competition this year and then prepare a competitive response for next year’s product line. “I’m going into stores now and looking at bad packaging and structural design failures so I can start talking to my customers about how I can help them in 2016. I look at the box on the shelf, the fit and function. Maybe it’s hard to shelve the product because of the design. Maybe a display doesn’t offer enough facings of product, or maybe the cells are too small, especially in apparel; the product may be wedged in so tightly that it’s hard for the customer to shop and hard for the retailer to maintain.
“If it’s on the shelf, I’m going to look for packaging with bad perfs, rough edges. It shows they’re using a packager that didn’t use the right perf knife. Or maybe the packaging looks great, but it’s hiding the product. Maybe it’s a bad print job with poor litho structure. Or maybe they’re fine on regular packaging but they aren’t well-equipped to address specific seasonal needs. Some shops think, “Well, it’s not really what we do, but we’ll do the best we can,” rather than outsourcing it to a sister plant. I’ll take a picture of that box or product and then prepare a before-and-after presentation for the client. These situations represent an opportunity for the independent to go in and say, ‘Seasonal packaging is our wheelhouse.’”
It pays to plan for such presentations far in advance. “Retailers are planning one year out,” Gilchrist notes. “By early November, I’m already working on all of my late-summer, back-to-school packaging and even all the way through NCAA football season. Product suppliers need to think even further ahead, at least 10–12 months.”
While the seasons themselves are predictable, Gilchrist sees other aspects of the packaging business evolving. He fully expects that to continue through 2016. “Buyers used to have a lot of autonomy,” he says. “Now, I’m seeing more of a hierarchy in the decision-making process. You spend all this time working on a program, but you end up waiting on the retailer, and it’s encroaching on the ‘go’ time to bring a package to market. Of course, that means the packaging company is getting lead times that are compressed, and they have to respond quickly.
“I’m also seeing a preference for buyers to do smaller trial runs to see how something is going to work. Especially with seasonal sales, they only have a limited window to see if the product sells. So they’ll order a shorter run on the front end, just to put their toe in the water. Independent converters are responding well to this through digital printing, which gives you fast, flexible printing for shorter runs.”
When it comes to challenges for the near future, Gilchrist points to the growth of e-commerce and retailer fragmentation, which leads to packaging that must be scalable for multiple-size venues as well as more SKUs to manage.
He recommends that packagers stay on top of trends—both negative and positive—by getting involved in industry organizations. “Join the Path to Purchase Institute. Join AICC. Attend conferences and trade shows. Develop relationships with retailers so you can ask questions.”
What People Want
Ellie Damashek follows consumer trends as client services director for North America at TrendWatching, a company that tracks emerging patterns of consumer behavior, attitude, and expectation. “We track clusters of innovations around the world that are unlocking these consumer needs,” she explains.
“We have moved beyond the period when consumers were siloed into larger demographic groups. Today’s consumers want to be treated as individuals.” — Ellie Damashek
TrendWatching does not focus solely on any one industry or demographic. Instead, the company tracks 16 major trend categories around the world, breaking those down into 140-plus subtrends. Each November, they release an annual report detailing the trends they believe will have an impact over the next 12–18 months. (The annual report, as well as free monthly briefings and other resources, is available at www.trendwatching.com.)
Damashek notes that the following four trends may be of particular interest for corrugated and paperboard packagers as they serve customers during the coming year:
Post-demographic consumerism. “This is at the top of the list,” Damashek says, noting that we have moved beyond the period when consumers were siloed into larger demographic groups. Today’s consumers want to be treated as individuals. She cites the popular example of Coke, which produced cans printed with individuals’ names, and NextGen, a cutlery company offering knives with 3-D printed handles to fit specific users’ hands.
Guilt-free consumption. “This is more relevant than ever. Brands need to help consumers absolve their guilt regarding waste, working conditions, and so on. A guilt-free approach helps them tackle that feeling by providing goods and packaging that not only has no negative impact on the world but also contributes positively in some way.” For example, she mentions a disposable coffee cup that has seeds buried in the paper and a sushi bar with an invasive-species menu to help control their spread.
From mundane to luxury. This means creating packaging with luxury appeal, which can lead to positive customer response for even ordinary goods. You probably won’t want to pitch an Apple-quality rigid box to a manufacturer of disposable phones. But there are likely design and production choices that could turn that client’s package into something more desirable and memorable.
“Still made here.” Damashek points out that customers are eager to celebrate locally made products. “Packagers need to share that information, especially when so many products are made abroad.”
Trends in Paperboard
Hybrid packaging. “By hybrid packaging, I mean packaging that uses the combined effects of paper, plastics, metallized films, functional coating. It’s not enough for a package to just contain the product,” he stresses. “I want a package that stands out and has a lot of ‘pow.’ That way, it’s going to differentiate itself.When it comes to industry-specific trends that are growing now and likely to be significant in the months to come, Dan Malenke—consultant, speaker, and president of PKGPRO—has noticed several key shifts, including hybrid packaging, smart packaging, digital printing, and the rise of dot-com retail.
“I’ve always espoused the ability of the independents to be nimble and responsive. They can afford to take risks on a small scale in a way that integrateds can’t.” — Dan Malenke
“Hybrid might be a combination of sleeve, pouch, or bag in concert with a traditional folding carton or tray. You might save cost on the folding carton by using 100 percent uncoated recycled paperboard with a gorgeous paper sleeve that slides over the top. That will look great and can represent some actual cost savings.” One way to reduce costs further is to turn to alternative sources for paperboard. “The publishing industry has gone flat,” he notes, which means that, with fewer raw materials being bought by commercial printers and publishers, there is an abundance of lightweight substrates available to packagers. “It’s a way to acquire lower-cost material, because of its abundance, and repurpose it into hybrid packaging. To their credit, the mills producing this material are out selling; they’re doing what needs to be done, if the independents are attentive to their game.”
Smart packaging. “Smart packaging may have enhanced communication features, theft and anti-counterfeiting protection, information features that will communicate with your smartphone. It could be a QR code. It could be product freshness indicators. It could be shock-and-tilt sensors that indicate if a sensitive product has been exposed to hazardous conditions. Today, we can put electronics and circuitry into packaging that enhances product value.
“There’s also a huge trend now to take preservatives out of foods and incorporate them into the actual packaging.”
Digital printing. Malenke says, “I believe digital printing is right on the cusp of taking off,” combining opportunities for late-stage customization with high visual impact. He believes there are affordable ways to get even more bang from digital printing.
“When you look at a package, there’s really only one face the customer sees. That face has to be the best; it has to grab your attention. So, one side does most of the work, while the other five panels are mostly there for information. I say, invest in that facing panel at the expense of the other five. Thanks to digital printing, inline, and on- and off-press capabilities, we can do exactly that. Why should I pay for a paper machine to coat an entire web when I can decorate just the panel I want? That’s an exciting prospect.”
Dot-com retail. “This is becoming a real threat to the folding carton guys,” Malenke admits. “You’ll be shopping online, looking at the great graphics on the packaging, and then the product arrives in a plain brown box.” In addition, often less packaging is required of goods bought online; there is little need for packaging that addresses theft protection and security.
There may be a packaging bright side to the rise of online shopping, however. “It provides great opportunity in terms of bulk packaging that retailers can use in their supply chain.”
No matter how optimistic the predictions or how stiff the challenges, Gilchrist, Damashek, and Malenke all agree that independent converters are uniquely equipped to respond.
“I’ve always espoused the ability of the independents to be nimble and responsive,” Malenke says. “They can afford to take risks on a small scale in a way that integrateds can’t. Smaller operations can throw one little piece into a trial and go to market much faster. But innovation is critical. Even a medium-sized independent should have somebody who really concentrates on innovation. You want to stay out in front of this stuff.”