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Ahead of the Curve

By AICC Staff

March 12, 2020

The packaging industry has come a long way from ancient times, when natural materials such as leaves, bark, or animal skins were used to hold and transport food and other materials. “The earliest recorded use of paper as a packaging material dates back to 1035, when a Persian traveler visiting the markets of Cairo noted that vegetables, spices, and hardware were wrapped in paper for the customers after they were sold,” according to an Adtec blog post.

Over the years and continuing into the 21st century, retailers and businesses of all kinds have continued to explore innovations in packaging, generally buoyed by two key drivers: the desire to stand out in an increasingly competitive marketing environment and growing consumer concern about environmental . Here we take a look at some trends in packaging that are offering both new opportunities and new challenges.

White Ink

Miriam Brafman is founder and CEO of Packlane, a custom packaging firm based in San Francisco. The 2019 holiday season drove demand for white ink, a trend that Brafman expects to continue into the new year. As Packlane’s website proclaims: White ink is back, and it’s here to stay. They offer a few examples to visually illustrate this trend. “White on kraft is pretty popular and gives a more upscale feel to an otherwise brown box,” she says.

Retailers are increasingly giving consideration to both the look and the feel of their packaging, whether that packaging sits on store shelves or is shipped directly to consumers.

The Package as an Experience

Specialty boxes are another trend Brafman points to: “things like holiday-themed boxes for promotional purposes to really create some novelty around a product, promotion, or campaign,” she says. A topic Brafman spoke on during AICC’s E-Commerce Xperience.

While, traditionally, brands with products sold through brick-and-mortar locations tended to worry more about the look and feel of their packaging than mail-order brands, that is changing. There are brands that are known for going “above and beyond to invest in appearance when it comes to e-commerce deliveries,” says Brafman.

Apple is one notable and widely known example. Apple outlined its packaging strategy in a white paper, Apple’s Paper and Packaging Strategy, with a focus on sourcing, sustainability, and aesthetics.

E-commerce is driving this trend to a large degree. According to Business 2 Community, e-commerce represents about 10% of retail sales and is growing about 15% a year. That’s creating a lot of visual competition and driving a desire among retailers to stand out—not only on sales shelves but also in customer mailboxes or on doorsteps.

“It really depends on what sort of brand you’re building,” Brafman says. “With e-commerce, brands are trying to really stand out when they’re involved in custom packaging.”

It’s not a requirement, as it is in retail, she says, where standout packaging is “table stakes.” Apple’s packaging is designed to provide a sensory experience, says Alessandra Ruggeri in a Swedbrand Group post. “Packing can indeed be just as important as the item it contains,” she writes.

It’s a concept that is catching on.

Even brands that are not specifically mail-order are finding that consumers are increasingly shopping online. They’re beginning to care more about what happens when the box arrives in the mail. So much so that the concept of unboxing continues to take hold—the act of receiving and unpackaging whatever was ordered. In fact, unboxing has become something of a cultural phenomenon, with more than 1.6 million YouTube videos showing people unboxing their products, according to Printing Industries of America.

Inside-the-Box Printing

Another trend that is catching on: inside-the-box printing. In some cases, retailers are taking an inside-only approach to printing to offer privacy for consumers. In other cases, inside-the-box printing is used to add to, or augment, the outside of the box in creative ways.

Packlane can print inside a corrugated box of any style, including mailers, shippers, and tuck tops. For mailer boxes they offer a free online box-designing tool for those who like to take the do-it-yourself approach.

It’s yet another way to not only stand out, but also to delight customers and increase the odds of catching their attention and making a memorable impression.

Sustainability: An Environmental Focus

Consumers are increasingly concerned about environmentaland they expect the companies they shop with to share those concerns, according to Nielsen research. In fact, Nielsen says, “A whopping 81% of global respondents feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. This passion for corporate social responsibility is shared across gender lines and generations. Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen X are the most supportive, but their older counterparts aren’t far behind.”

Packaging manufacturers are taking note, but the issue isn’t readily addressed, says Greg Tucker, Chair and CEO of Bay Cities Packaging & Design in Los Angeles. “With the explosion of online purchases, we are seeing more and more corrugated boxes stacking up everywhere,” he says. “Our traditional supply chain for old boxes was a very functional system that would pick up the used box at a retail establishment and send it to a paper mill to be converted back into a box again. Our little fascination with shopping online has disrupted this closed-loop system and is presenting a bit of a problem everywhere.”

Tucker notes that only about 35% of boxes are recycled by consumers receiving packages at their homes. “In my mind, every box should read, ‘Recycle This Box’ in very large, bold, big letters,” he says.

While some retailers are seeking alternative solutions, those solutions present their own problems, Tucker says, pointing to Amazon as an example. “Amazon, the largest of all online sites in America, has moved to utilizing more plastic for its packaging solutions,” he says. “Sure, the plastic envelopes and plastic air cushions are lighter and take up less space, but just where does all this stuff go?” Only 15% of all plastics are reclaimed, Tucker says, meaning that 85% of every plastic piece goes to a landfill.

This is an area of high concern for many consumers and companies, and it is likely to continue to be a concern. Unfortunately, says Brafman, it’s an area where a gap exists in the market. “People are more and more frequently really trying to figure out how to be sustainable while also using packaging, and they’re actively looking for a lot of solutions that don’t necessarily exist yet,” she says.

In addition to concerns about growing mounds of cardboard, Brafman acknowledges that “we all own a section of the market where the inks are really kind of toxic and not sustainable—they’re all petroleum-based.”

Where will the next decade take us in terms of innovation in point-of-purchase and point-of-sale displays? It’s anybody’s guess, but as technology continues to evolve, the odds are good that innovation will continue as retailers seek new and more engaging ways to connect and compel consumers to action.

width=150Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a frequent BoxScore contributor.





Sidebar: Sales Channel Toolkit

The Paper & Packaging Board has developed a Sales Channel Toolkit filled with free sales enablement resources that AICC members can access. Infographics, case studies, articles, and more are available to you to share with your customers about unboxing, the perception of paper, e-commerce, and other topics that highlight the value of paper and board and are critical to your customers’ success. Using facts, statistics, and real-world applications that are laid out in an easy-to-understand manner, these tools will help you lead your customers and prospects to making the best packaging decisions.

To access these free resources, visit and request a login for the Sales Channel Toolkit.

Sidebar: A Look at Trends in Displays

A Harvard Business Review article, “Better Marketing at the Point of Purchase,” offers some examples of innovative point-of-purchase (POP) displays, such as a computerized display linked to a videodisc player offering the opportunity for consumers to interact by responding to a series of questions that lead to recommendations about the type of computer to best suit the customer’s needs. There’s likely not much that is startling about that except for this: The article was published in 1983.

We’ve come a long way since then, as retailers continue to look for new ways to capture the attention and interest of consumers to spur purchasing decisions.


POP and point-of-sale (POS) displays might be thought of as “packages for packages”—in-store displays designed to attract attention and create interest.

For the sake of clarity, here’s an explanation on the difference between POP and POS from Bay Cities’ website: “POS stands for ‘point-of-sale’ and refers to the stands that are by the cashier where the actual transaction occurs when the customer buys the product. POP displays usually take up floor space within the retailer and most of the time resemble shelves. POP is typically larger, while POS can be found sitting next to checkout stations.” Bay Cities has won several awards for its displays.

While corrugated construction has long been a mainstay for POP and POS displays, other materials also used are polystyrene, foam board, acrylic, wood, and more.

Growing Demand

Today’s displays have moved beyond static boxes or floor stands to incorporate movement, sound, and increasingly sophisticated technology to stand out and delight customers. The industry is seeing an uptick in both demand and innovation.

According to a Global POP Displays Market report, the market is predicted to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5.9% from 2018 to 2026. “Product interaction before the purchase remains the overriding factor driving sales through physical retail [stores],” the report says. “[POP] displays are one of the major platforms that draw consumers’ attention and convey product benefits, thereby ensuring product interaction and influencing the pulse purchase.”

Displays are also becoming increasingly innovated by advances in both construction and technology, such as augmented and virtual reality to enhance the consumer experience in new ways. And it surely won’t be long before some unheard-of technology graces retail floors and influences the way we buy—and impacts the way boxmakers deliver the experience.