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Packaging for mass retail: Retail packaging tips to set your product apart

Packaging for mass retail: Retail packaging tips to set your product apart

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Packaging for mass retail: Retail packaging tips to set your product apart

Packaging is one of the most complex parts of product development because as a founder, you need to understand not just the product, but graphic design, supply chains, category regulations, and end-of-life waste disposal. Altogether, packaging can seem pretty complex, but a solid foundation of research, a reliable approach to concept development, and careful consideration of key factors for your packaging strategy can help you navigate this complexity with confidence.   


Let’s start from the beginning: Great packaging is built on a solid foundation of research and a thorough understanding of your target audience.  

Quantitative research, such as a survey, is a great way to learn about your core customer. If you add a numerical scale to the questions, or simply sum up the responses, you can use the data to see patterns and gain insights. You can ask questions about frequency of purchase, preferred brands, and favorite format, as well as questions about how and where a package will be used and stored. Asking usage and storage questions can uncover unmet needs and give you a competitive edge for your packaging design. For example, if customers indicate they use your product away from home, you may want to develop a package for on-the-go usage. On the other hand, if you learn that a package is stored on a kitchen countertop, you may want to carefully consider the aesthetics of the packaging because it will be on display like a piece of home décor. 

Qualitative research is another excellent way to learn about your audience. Interviews are a widely used form of qualitative research and can be conducted via phone, video call or in-person. All forms of qualitative research are helpful, but in-person while in the environment of use are the most helpful because you will see what people actually do versus what they tell you they do (you’d be surprised at the gap that exists between the two). This is a particularly important distinction, and you may miss out on crucial details unless you visit someone in their environment. While conducting an in-person interview, ask someone to describe the steps they go through to use a package and then observe them doing the same thing. With observation, you may notice some unmet needs that your competitors have missed.  

Note that in-person research in the environment of use is powerful, but it can be challenging to execute and difficult to navigate privacy issues. It may seem easy to walk into a stranger’s home and start a conversation about packaging, but it’s incredibly challenging, especially when dealing with sensitive information. Enter professional researchers, who can help you develop a research plan and support legal agreements for privacy and intellectual property.   

If you’re not able to fund professional research, intercepts in public spaces are another option. With most intercepts, you won’t have time to execute a detailed discussion plan. As a shortcut, ask two all-important questions: “What do you like about your current packaging choice?” and “What would you change about the packaging?” When conducting intercepts, make sure to compensate people for their time. Last but not least, remember that ideas given to you without compensation and assignment may be the intellectual property of the person you’ve interviewed.  

Concept development 

After you have conducted initial research, you can begin your design process. There are many free design tools, but few match pencil and paper. You can spend a lot of time trying to make an exciting rendering in a computer-aided design format, but it is really important to develop the right concept rather than spend time making a beautiful rendering of a mediocre idea. To get the right concept, consider lots of different options and test them before narrowing. And remember, your first idea will rarely be your best.  

When it comes to packaging conceptualizing, remember that it’s okay if you’re not an expert at drawing. People may be more willing to give you feedback with rough or unrefined sketches because they understand this is a work in progress and not a fully developed concept. You may also want to consider using modeling clay to capture complex forms or three-dimensional forms. Most important? Remember to share your ideas to target customers or those in your network for feedback.  

Strategic factors 

While sketching out and modeling concepts for packaging, there are a few core factors to consider including protection, communication, accessibility, and sustainability. Each of these factors has additional elements and questions to answer.  

    • Protection: This is the most crucial factor for packaging because broken or damaged products will not be sold or will not be repeatedly purchased. There are several aspects of protection you should take into account:  
      • Consider how the package will protect the product during travel from the manufacturer to the point of sale. To gain an understanding of the requirements you can research testing protocols for your intended supply chain or talk to experts.  
      • Consider how the package will protect the product at point of sale. Again, you can use testing protocols for the retail environment or talk to experts.  
      • Think about how the package will protect the product while in use after purchase. If you conduct research in the environment of use, you should have a good understanding of protection needs after purchase.  
    • Communication: This is another important factor, especially for trial of new products: 
      • Make sure the packaging meets the basic requirements of good packaging communication and conveys the size, shape, and color of the item. 
      • Evaluate materials for their clarity, opacity, and ability to accept print and color.  
      • Make sure key features of the product are visible and the packaging communicates the key functions of the product. This can be done with windows, cutouts, text, icons, and photographs. If you plan to include these elements, you will need adequate space on your packaging format.  
      • Ensure your packaging clearly distinguishes your product from related products. You can create uniqueness for your product through text, icons, and photographs or additional design elements such as a consistent color or form.  
    • Accessibility: This is an important and often overlooked factor of packaging. Accessibility has many factors; most are centered around sensory perception and strength.  
      • Visual accessibility is a key factor to consider as you want to make sure your audience can read and view your packaging. Think through elements such as type size, color contrast, and language system to ensure visual accessibility and appropriate comprehension.  
      • Strength limitations are another important consideration. Make sure your packaging can be opened, closed, transported, and dispensed by your entire audience.  
      • Consider accessibility during in-store interaction and choose elements that enable touching, feeling, and trying on the product for fit and feel before purchase.  

You can test packaging for accessibility using quantitative testing laboratories to measure opening force and other physical factors. Along with quantitative testing, you should test your prototypes and final packaging with a wide range of people to ensure appropriate accessibility.  

    • Sustainability: This has been a major macro trend of packaging over the last several decades. Like accessibility, sustainability has many factors, here are a few key considerations for improving sustainability.  
      • Review your packaging concept to identify any components or materials that can be eliminated or reduced in weight or size. This is the best way to improve sustainability because all materials and components have an impact on the environment.  
      • Ensure your materials are generally recognized as safe and do not contain toxic or harmful elements that could be released during use or disposal.  
      • Make sure your packaging is durable enough to withstand the expected lifetime of the product. If a package breaks down or reduces protection, it may be destroyed, wasting the materials of the package and potentially the product as well.  
      • Lastly, consider the likely end-of-life use for the package. It’s important to account for the most common scenarios — not just the most favorable. Consider the recycling rates and access to packaging recycling in the communities of your intended audience and design for those facilities. There are publicly available reports on community level access to recycling and composting, and you can conduct expert interviews with people at material recovery facilities and waste management companies to answer detailed questions about end of life and sustainability.  

Craving more info as you create your packaging journey? Helpful resources, below:  

When using ergonomic data, it is important to understand the survey population. The ANSUR database has detailed measurements, but the population is people in the US Army. These people tend to be fitter than the general population. The NHANES uses the general population and children, but the measurements are less detailed. The Penn State Open Design Lab is an excellent resource for data visualization from ANSUR and NHANES. 

  • There are many resources for understanding recycling and composting in the United States. The US Environmental Protection Agency publishes information about materials, waste management, and recycling. The Composting Consortium publishes studies and information about composting in the U.S. The U.S. Plastics Pact publishes reports on the state of recycling in the US and progress by member companies to meet reduction, elimination, and recycling goals.

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