Dhivant Patel, Unilever | How e-commerce is influencing the biggest trends in packaging

Dhivant Patel, global e-commerce supply chain manager at Unilever examines how packaging is adapting to meet the needs of internet shoppers

Dhivant Patel, global eCommerce supply chain manager, Unilever
Dhivant Patel, global eCommerce supply chain manager, Unilever

The Internet, social media and e-commerce have revolutionised the way businesses communicate with consumers. What was once unidirectional has become a flourishing conversation, and retailers now have an unprecedented opportunity to understand their customers.

While consumers now have better access to information, greater choice and a platform on which to voice their experiences, businesses have gained direct access to their preferences and feedback, with the power to ensure the customer’s needs really come first.

Part of my role at Unilever involves spotting the trends disrupting the supply chain, many of which are being driven by e-commerce as it continues to shape the way people shop for and interact with brands. As our pace of life quickens and technology advances, we surf and shop on the move and receive purchases on-demand. People therefore look to e-commerce to deliver lifestyle solutions not just products and services.

From production line to warehouse to post box, packaging has evolved into an impactful tool to help meet consumers’ expectations while keeping up with escalating costs. Above all, businesses are starting to realise that shipped packages are a direct touchpoint with consumers and, thanks to e-commerce, a rich marketing opportunity.

On one end of the scale, packaging has become leaner, more resourceful and designed for delivery. When e-commerce start-up Graze launched its service of healthy snacks by mail in 2008, it not only paved the way in delivering fresh produce by post, but proved that the size of a customer’s letter box doesn’t need to be a barrier to products bought online.
Packaging innovation for a category of tech-savvy but time-strapped consumers has since given rise to a number of exciting new brands. Splosh, for example, allows customers to purchase cleaning products online which are delivered in a letter box-sized carton.

The initial purchase arrives as plastic bottles with sachets of concentrated liquid inside, which the customer decants into each bottle and adds water to create the end product. Refills are easily ordered via the website or app.

Alongside convenience and value for money, Splosh’s offering is appealing as it is less damaging to the environment. The Internet has given consumers greater ability to understand where a business is positioned on the moral compass and can better identify brands that match their own belief systems.

As a result, even the world’s biggest brands are becoming more transparent about their supply chain, and innovating sustainable eCommerce solutions. Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging, for example, works with manufactures to reduce the amount of packaging used. All materials are recyclable, easy to open and free from excess materials like cumbersome clamshell casing. The initiative aims to reduce environmental impact while delivering a streamlined, fuss-free parcel that makes the lives of recipients less frustrating.

The increasingly collaborative nature of the relationship between brands, retailers and consumers is the driving force behind businesses thinking more creatively about how their products and services are received. As major brands like Amazon try to cut back on delivery materials and expenses, others are successfully tapping into a consumer demographic that demands high-end packaging and personalised brand experiences – and are happy paying a premium for it.

One such brand is the Chicago-based clothing company Trunk Club. Tapping into the burgeoning culture of ‘unboxing’ championed on social media, Trunk Club invites customers to discuss their wardrobe preferences with an online stylist, who then handpicks a selection of clothes from premium brands. The items are then boxed and delivered to the customer’s door in luggage-style packaging that is a big, bold extension of the brand.

Putting satisfaction first and foremost, customers are encouraged to return items they aren’t sure about with free shipping both ways and a 10-day window to try them on. After operating as an independent start-up for a number of years, the acquisition of Trunk Club by American fashion retailer Nordstrom in 2014 proved the existence of a wholesale market for its luxury offering.

As big businesses continue to find new ways to harness the marketing opportunities e-commerce presents, the entire systems by which they traditionally operate are being overhauled. In particular the innovation process, which used to be about big teams requiring big investment to create products and packaging that were pushed outwards to the consumer, has become tighter and focused around the needs of the consumer. Businesses are beginning to adopt a culture of test-and-learn whereby teams apply the data they have acquired to experiment and try out new ideas on a small scale, gaining insight and feedback before upscaling.

The Unilever Foundry, for instance, which was set up to link Unilever with the start-up community, launched ReHack to bring developers, coders and tech enthusiasts together with Unilever Foundry and retailers to develop solutions in e-commerce. From smart packaging to coaching consumers on recycling, Unilever collaborates with the winning teams to bring their ideas to life. What Unilever gains in fresh ideas, specialist skills and agility, start-ups gain in visibility, scale and experience. These partnerships are an invaluable way for businesses to innovate around eCommerce and packaging – and are something we’re starting to see much more of.

While packaging is experiencing an exciting period of disruption, businesses should work towards a future when packaging and delivery leverages technology to create a truly streamlined experience across all consumer touchpoints. Businesses are starting to experiment in this space, for instance through the introduction of QR codes and chips into packaging, however none are yet to make the all-important link between innovation and meaningful lifestyle solutions.

Splosh is a great example of a brand that bridges the gap between innovative packaging solutions with a strong eco message and providing a quality, personalised experience. I’m looking forward to the exciting innovations that appear as businesses start to really harness tech to seize the opportunities e-commerce offers right across the supply chain.