Shopping Habits Are Changing, Is Your Packaging Keeping Up?

by Adam Spriggs on 07/31/2020 | 6 Minute Read

In this modern world, it seems that every task we perform gets re-engineered in the pursuit of automation and efficiency. The chore of grocery shopping has evolved from a leisurely browsing experience into a race against time. On average, consumers spend 10 seconds shopping a category before making a purchase decision. 

Then, along came COVID, and suddenly, almost overnight, roaming aisles in a store became associated with fear and risk. In response, consumers have resorted to fewer and even faster shopping trips. We’ve witnessed the accelerated adoption of online shopping, Instacart, subscription programs, and out-of-store pickup.

Odds of discovery and purchase have swung in favor of familiar brands with more facings and deeper pockets. No matter how long you expect COVID’s tremors to persist, we can reasonably expect that in-store shopping behaviors will only become more accelerated and pre-programmed in correlation to our increasingly hurried lives.

For smaller brands, with fewer facings at the shelf and limited brand recognition, this can be a challenging reality to generate discovery. More than ever, your startup’s packaging must punch above its weight class to outmuscle larger, more recognizable brands for attention and sales at shelf.  

So, how do you do it?

Every minute, a new shopper shows up in your category and immediately begins processing visual data. In mere seconds, patterns quickly emerge as the browsing eye processes shape, color, imagery, graphics, and words to create order out of chaos. In this warp-speed moment of truth, to thrive, your packaging must make itself known and reach out with visual anomalies that will cause the eye to stop and take note.

So, if you want to win hearts and minds at the shelf, here are four packaging design tips to jumpstart attention.

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Structure Innovation

You might have gathered that most milk comes in cartons. So when Califia's plant milk debuted in its contoured carafe, shoppers couldn’t help but notice something fresh had arrived in the dairy category (or non-dairy in this case). Your tired eyes can't help but take note of the packaging structure before you.

Most yogurts get sold in narrow, tall cups, and Noosa, who makes nothing close to ordinary yogurt, decided that a squatted cup would speak volumes to shoppers about their product’s uniqueness and how one should enjoy it. For Noosa, investing in a unique structure right out of the gate also worked wonders for generating attention and early notoriety with retailers and other trade partners.   

When everyone zigs, consider zagging beyond the common carrier. What shapes dominate your set? Is it time for a new innovative package to come along and shake things up? No one's saying that you should start selling milk in a plastic udder, but even the slightest change to your packaging will have consumers doing a double-take.

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Color Renegade or Chameleon?

Colors are powerful associative clues that brands exploit to lead hurried shoppers toward useful conclusions. For instance, are you in a jam for time and need a jar of grape jelly? Look for something purple. Need a case of water? Look for stacks of blue, shrink-wrapped bottles.  

Colors can tell shoppers they’re in the right place, or that they’ve found the flavor variety they’re hunting for, so what color laws should your brand play into? 

Well, consider the upside of turning your category’s color standards upside down. Evian did this by infusing pink into their brand identity as a contrast to the sea of blue bottles found in their category. Tate’s Bake Shop hotwires brand discovery at shelf through an allegiance to green, an unusual color in the cookie world.  Guayaki's yerba mate fortified their shelf presence by creating a billboard of radiant yellow in a premium beverage cooler that seemed to overlook this eye-grabbing palette. By going all-in on yellow, they managed to build a distinct touch of brand recognition.

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Product Imagery

Have you ever slowly walked by and stared at every box behind Walmart’s freezer cases? I highly recommend it, though it might not be the ideal time to do that with a global pandemic gong on. That said, it’s literally a gold mine of packaging best practices, the ones researched and financed by the world’s largest brands, all jockeying for share at the world’s biggest retailer.

One thing becomes immediately obvious at Wally World, BigCo believes in the power of big appetite appeal. Kraft and Hormel know that when shoppers show up at the shelf desperate for pizza, they’ll reach for a porny photograph of “cheese pull.

Questions big brand asks to win a share of the stomach:

  - How can we make frozen broccoli look…amazing?

  - What if we just showed the largest bowl of cereal in the history of humankind?  

  - What do shoppers want refreshment to look like?  

  - What imagery would make our "homemade" promise hit home? 

Your small brand’s approach to product photography might require an entirely different narrative than BigCo. Coolhaus is notorious for their bold disregard for category norms, and so their product imagery might suggest "you’ve never had an ice cream sandwich like this before." Either way, don’t overlook the best practices that your category leaders may be hiding in plain sight.  

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Go Big or Go Home

Taken individually, consider every design element crammed into the small confines of your packaging. Now, zoom out and imagine the collective visual noise of 70 products from the same category and grocery aisle all vying for a shopper’s attention. In this overwhelming reality, your odds of winning attention are greatly improved simply by offering the shopper’s eye a landing spot.

Scaling and isolating a single design element is a trusty trick for inviting a staring contest. For instance, if you're a gelato brand, you might try having your packaging serve up the largest scoop in the freezer. Or, on the other side of the market, 4505’s packaging casts a silhouette of a pig, while Siete centers a large stoic heron on their chip bags. Siete owns one of the largest graphics in the snack aisle, how can you not be drawn to that?

So, when you stand about 4-5 feet away from a particular set of products in the grocery store, which packages offer the largest focal points for shoppers in your category?

Make the Most of Your Audition 

Once you’ve earned attention using some of the tips mentioned here, you’ll want to go well out of your way to acquiesce to shoppers' heightened motivation to get in and out of the store ASAP. 

Oversimplifying your principal display panel (PDP) with pointed messaging is always a shopper-friendly design strategy. Think of it as a guided tour of your products must-know details, all contained and sized accordingly. Here’s a masterful example from Beyond Meat, who condenses all critical communication into a "cutting board lockup" for easy identification of the product offering and key attributes.

These timeless package design fundamentals have always bared fruit, and this year, the stakes are higher than ever for challenger brands to get them right. 

For packaging designers, now is the moment where you should empathize with a shopper’s more programmed and accelerated experience at the shelf. Take the time to imagine how you might better invite discovery for a consumer, and give them something bold and unforgettable. There’s not a moment to waste.  

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