In the mid-to-late 1800s, shoppers interested in purchasing many everyday products—from flour to crackers to pickles—usually had to ask store attendants to fish what they wanted out of a barrel for them. Customers would then transport their goods home in a cloth sack, a paper bag, or wrapped in paper.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the burgeoning field of marketing brought consumer products out of barrels and into individual jars, cans, tubes, and other containers emblazoned with corporate iconography. “Branding really led the way towards packaging that looks the same in Des Moines as it did in New York City,” says Sean Riley, a spokesperson for the trade group PMMI, which used to stand for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.
Today, as people buy more and more products online, product packaging is again changing, in a way that reflects the differences between digital and physical retail: Anything bought online needs to be able to withstand being shipped individually, often necessitating extra plastic coverings. And on the internet, it’s images of products themselves, not their packaging, that usually show up in search results, which makes the visual appeal of any box or label a lesser concern than it once was.
Lisa Pierce is watching developments like these closely. She is the editor of Packaging Digest, a trade publication, and has been covering product packaging for about 35 years. She says her magazine’s purview is the packaging of “basically any product you can buy in a store.”
I recently talked to Pierce for “Tricks of the Trade,” a series of interviews with the editors of trade publications, and asked her about how online retail is changing product packaging, as well as how much packaging is too much and how she’s seen the industry change over three and a half decades. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: When you walk into a store, what do you notice that you think most people wouldn’t?
Lisa Pierce: There are a couple things. The first is when there’s a new packaging format for a product. I can look at a package on a shelf and pretty much guess how it was packaged. Sometimes that’s where the innovation is: on the production-machinery side of things, not necessarily on the physical-package side of things. For example, dairy beverages are typically sold in the refrigerator section because they’re dairy-based, right? But one company came out with a dairy-based beverage that was shelf-stable, meaning that it did not need refrigeration. Consumers expected dairy to be in the cold section, so they still put it there, but they were able to save immensely on the nonrefrigerated distribution, the shipping of it, because it didn’t need to stay cold.
The other thing I’m a little bit more aware of than some consumers is whether packaging is necessary or excessive. A lot of consumers, they just see layer upon layer of packaging without realizing the reasons behind it. There’s usually always a reason why a product is packaged the way it’s packaged. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good reason, but there’s always a reason.
Take a skin-care product. I’m the right demographic for anti-aging skin-care products—that’s the polite way of putting it. And the majority of them, especially the higher-end products, are usually in a jar or a bottle, and then that is placed into a carton, and that’s how it’s sold. Do we really need the carton? Well, there are a couple of reasons why…