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What Current Consumer Behavior Can Tell Us About the Future of Packaging

by Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel on 11/16/2020 | 6 Minute Read

By Fred Hart, Valerie Hawks, and Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel 

We live in a time of radical change as we cope with a pandemic that has affected how we live, work, play, sleep, and even, at times, breathe. The big changes are noticeable—shifts to working from home for non-essential workers, homeschooling, wearing masks—but even subtle human behavior shifts can have lasting ramifications for many industries. 

The way society engages with packaging during the pandemic has not been immune to this development. Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits states that “the best evidence we have at this point is that it can take two to three months to form a simple habit—to make something so automated that you don’t have to think about it, you just do it.” The pandemic has currently been impacting humanity on a global scale for several months. Now is the time to take stock of consumer behavior changes relevant to packaging that may move from temporary adaptations to permanent habits. We must consider how an examination of these themes can facilitate future predictions unrelated to the current crisis.

Consumer behavior is rapidly evolving, and the marketplace from 2019 looks vastly different than the one we see today. Here are three areas that designers should consider.

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The Shopping Experience and Trend Accelerants

When grocery shopping, the expert encouragement is to go alone. Bring your list, shop efficiently, and minimize browsing. Consumers are encouraged to touch items only as necessary. 

In other words, get in and get out. 

What, for some, was once a relaxing, potentially social time has now become more exclusively functional and possibly stressful.

Minimal browsing means that a package, now, more than ever, needs to catch the eye of the consumer faster and with purpose. If someone grabs and goes, they will focus on the primary display panel of the package. Messaging at this stage is significant and should be clear and straightforward. Your packaging needs to answer what the product does, what the brand is, and any preparation or usage requirements within the first four to five seconds of reading. That isn’t just true for in-store shoppers either. Business Insider states, "We could see a permanent shift after the pandemic has passed with more people choosing to shop for groceries online as they become more accustomed to this.” 

U.S. online shopping accounted for 5.1% of grocery sales at the end of 2019 and rose to 6.6% as of April 12th, according to a Bain & Co. report. The pandemic has accelerated this trend and opened the behavior to new markets. Customers began downloading grocery shopping apps for the first time at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak and bought more groceries online than they did in stores.

Long-term, the in-person shopping experience may once again become less exclusively functional. Package designers may need to consider that the point of purchase for food items will be increasingly online, providing only a small visual window for the package. Designing for quick in-store shopping and online shopping, especially for Amazon, is going to be more meaningful than ever. When a new force acts to increase the momentum of a change already underway, that change will likely become the new normal.

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Sanitization and Behavioral Friction

As a result of the pandemic, more people are disinfecting food and its packaging, mail, and other items that enter the home. Experts generally agree that, when shopping, the primary risk for exposure to the novel coronavirus comes from other people in enclosed spaces with you, not items or environmental surfaces. However, while the probability is very low, it is still possible to contract the virus from contaminated surfaces. Even if science proves that disinfecting packaging is not necessary or only minimally beneficial, what matters to people is emotionally driven. If people feel that cleaning product packaging protects them and washing provides an immediate reward, like a decrease in emotional stress, the habit may continue. However, it will only continue if the difficulty or friction of performing the act is not so burdensome as to outweigh the benefit. 

Should packaging sanitization become a long-term consumer habit, designers should consider how to address this. One avenue is messaging. As a result of multiple Listeria outbreaks, the messaging on bagged spinach telling us that the greens have been triple washed lets us know we don’t need to wash it a fourth time. However, it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing future messaging letting us know that our granola bars are safe and secure in their inner film packaging, so the outer carton does not need to get washed. Another avenue is to consider if designing structures or using substrates that can be more easily cleaned by consumers is a new, vital consideration. In March, 47% of consumers reported disinfecting their groceries at home. That is a large number of people, but it also means that a slight majority have not adopted the habit. Washing groceries is time-consuming and, as seen in this viral video by Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen, can be a rather elaborate endeavor. Given the many pain-points of this new washing behavior and the lack of support from professionals, it is unlikely that this behavior will continue long-term. Here, the friction will ultimately trump a perception of benefit.

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Sustainability and Emergency Behavior 

A nationwide survey from PBS NewsHour and Marist Poll, released in 2019, found that two out of three Americans were very concerned about plastic in the environment and were willing to pay more to avoid single-use plastic. Before the pandemic, a growing number of consumers were moving in the direction of reusable packaging, and the popular belief that plastic food packaging is safer has been steadily declining. 

Additionally, U.S. jurisdictions that have banned plastic bag use or instituted charges to use them have seen a 60-90% decrease in plastic bag litter and an average of 80% increase in reusable bags. However, when the novel coronavirus hit, the plastics industry pushed back on single-use plastic bans, promoting the message that single-use plastics are safe and sanitary, and reusables aren’t. Other industry moves, such as grocery stores requiring that consumers use store-provided bags rather than personally provided reusable bags support this notion.

Disposable packaging is not safer than properly washed reusable packaging. While no concrete scientific data has yet been shown for the virus’s lifespan on reusable bags, expert advice is to clean reusable bags thoroughly with soap and water, a disinfectant, or both. Progress is also being made to switch out single-use plastic and paper food packaging for reusables. While there is a general belief that food packaging gets viewed as protection for our food, it does not appear that consumers will abandon all sustainability goals. It is less likely that we will contract COVID-19 from packaging, and when this becomes general knowledge, consumers will return to more reusable items. While the current crisis has temporarily deprioritized sustainability efforts, it will not end it, and in time, it will recover. When assessing the staying power of a change, note if the new behavior is directly connected to an emergency and is at odds with overarching consumer morals and beliefs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many new and often unwelcome challenges, but the flip side of this is the chance to examine those difficulties as opportunities for innovation. Some modifications will dramatically revolutionize industries, while others will lead to more subtle evolution or acceleration of existing change. The desire to wash packaging may instead lead to a proliferation of antimicrobial packaging, disinfecting lights, changes in policy related to the handling of packaging, updates to the architecture of our homes, or something else as yet unimaginable. 

One thing is for sure—there is always more than one way to envision a better future, and keeping human need, desire, and behavior at the center is an absolute must. 

Fred Hart is a Partner and Creative Director at Interact Boulder – a spirited branding agency obsessed with the food and beverage industry, fueled by a steady, 24-hour diet of tastemakers, entrepreneurs, grocery stores, farmers markets, restaurants and more.

Valerie Hawks is the spirited Head of Production and Sustainability at Interact Boulder, a branding and packaging design agency shepherding tomorrow’s brands with creative consequence. Valerie’s 13 years of print production experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm guides clients from bright eyed startups to courageous industry vets. She’s passionate in areas of the circular packaging economy that allow brands to maximize the sustainability of their packaging while minimizing their carbon footprint.