Ecommerce packaging: the beginner's guide
This post was last updated on June 20, 2023.
You started your business. You’ve got an order in hand, and it’s time to ship. Chances are your primary concerns are delivery speed and cost—but there’s another factor to consider: product packaging.
Using the right packaging is an essential eCommerce shipping best practice that can do much more than simply protect your products. In fact, when it comes to the potential benefits of well-executed eCommerce packaging, it pays to think outside the box.
In this blog, we’ll unpack all the considerations and criteria for creating a great unboxing experience for your customers. Keep reading for expert tips, resources, and inspiration when dealing with inventory management (and eCommerce logistics) topics like this.
Table of contents
What is eCommerce packaging?
Ecommerce packaging is a cross between traditional product packaging and shipping considerations.
Like traditional retail packaging, eCommerce packaging should attractively showcase your products and include helpful information, like assembly instructions and customer service contacts.
However, it should also serve to protect your products. During the order fulfillment process, your product gets passed between many hands. Your packaging therefore needs to be sturdy and well-padded. It must comply with shipping requirements and ensure that your products arrive in pristine condition.
Not only this, but your packaging acts as a way to heighten brand identity, delight buyers, and re-engage them. Since your shoppers aren’t immersed in store environments, it’s extra important that your packaging leaves an impression. You want your customers to remember your brand name and feel like they were treated to a good product and a great overall experience.
Essential eCommerce packaging criteria
Given all the work eCommerce packaging does, it’s no wonder that the list of criteria is long. As a small business owner setting out to design your own packaging solution, keep in mind the following considerations:
Protection - Safe arrival of your products not only boosts customer satisfaction and trust; it helps prevent costly returns. Your brand reputation is also at stake here. Given that consumers are more likely to post about a poor experience than a good one online, you’ll want to minimize the risk of damage in transit—and any potential word-of-mouth damage that could follow.
Cost - In addition to the price of packaging materials, factor in how the size and weight of your packaging affect shipping costs. Heavy, odd-sized, or large packaging may incur extra fees or require more days in transit.
Sustainability - More than half of U.S. consumers are concerned about the sustainability of product packaging, and 43% say that they care about the environmental impact of packaging. Sellers who fail to heed consumers’ sustainability concerns not only risk their reputations, but their bottom line, too. Note: states are considering a variety of bills this year concerning extended producer responsibility (EPR). This would require producers and sellers to cover the disposal costs of their packaging waste, among other requirements. You can limit your regulatory fees by using recyclable materials.
Customer service - There should be little confusion over how to start using your product, or whom to reach out to if a customer needs extra assistance. Similarly, your customers should be able to locate your return policy somewhere within the packaging.
Marketing - Seize opportunities to foster relationships with your customers. Consider how everything from the product inserts to the sealing tape of your packages plays into the unboxing experience—which, in turn, can boost your virality. For example, Unbox Therapy, a YouTube channel with over 18 million subscribers, leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the unboxing experience. He even goes as far as smelling the box in this video, which earned over 1.5 million views.
Marketplace fulfillment requirements - If you’re a multichannel retailer and sell products on online marketplaces like Amazon, you may need to conform to certain packaging criteria. For example, Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) provides extensive prep and packaging requirements to speed up handling at its warehouse. Meanwhile, Walmart Fulfillment Services (WFS) has standards for maximum product dimensions and weight. Should you choose to ship orders yourself, you’ll still need to consider how your packaging may impact the cost and timing of your deliveries. Marketplaces favor fast, affordable shipping. So, your visibility and competitiveness on these channels often rely on having lightweight (yet secure) packaging.
Types of eCommerce packaging
Depending on the size, weight, and durability of your products, different packaging sizes and materials may be appropriate. Here are a few types to entertain.
Corrugated cardboard boxes
By far the most common choice, corrugated cardboard boxes have the advantage of being recyclable and durable. They’re lightweight relative to their strength.
The structure of the corrugated box walls determines how much weight they can hold, so you may need to use different cardboard types for different products. But you can choose from a variety of sizes, flaps, folds, and closures.
Depending on how fragile your products are, you may even opt to overbox—a packaging strategy where you fit a smaller cardboard box securely within an outer container to hold individual component parts.
This may require some testing; companies like Amazon have fielded complaints about difficult-to-open containers and excess waste (which led Amazon to launch its “Frustration-Free Packaging” program). Still, you may want to use this double layer of strong protection for items that could otherwise arrive damaged.
Smaller items that need a moderate degree of protection, such as boxed jewelry, makeup, media, or books, can be sent in padded envelopes. These envelopes are usually made of paper or plastic and have a layer of cushioning to avoid breakage. Bubble wrap is a popular, protective material. However, it’s less eco-friendly than padding made of shredded or recycled paper.
Bags or envelopes
For products that are light and unbreakable—like clothes—a plain envelope, pouch, or poly mailer could suffice. These simply provide protection from some scratches, smudging, and other blemishes caused by external objects and environment.
The most popular type of envelopes is plastic. Plastic has the advantage of being ultra-lightweight, tear-resistant, and waterproof but is less sustainable than paper. New alternatives, like kraft paper mailers and compostable mailers, seek to reduce waste and may be worth exploring.
Additional packaging materials
If you’re lucky, your product will only need one thin layer of production to arrive to your customers safely.
But if you’re like most sellers, your item likely requires a container of its own—be it a jar, tube, box, pouch, or envelopes—or extra padding to fit securely inside your shipping container. It may additionally require space to include an instruction manual, thank you note, or other inserts.
To that end, take these elements into account:
Infill - Padding material stabilizes products within the outer transport packaging. Old-school styrofoam peanuts are largely a thing of the past. Many sellers opt to use biodegradable alternatives made of corn (yes, corn). And a whole host of other materials can be used to cushion products, including kraft paper, shredded cardboard, and chains of paper or plastic “air pillows.” For fragile items like glassware or perishable foods, consider using a molded infill that’s shaped to fit snugly around your product. This will protect them from being crushed, especially if they’re packed together with other items. Recycled paper pulp, cardboard, and even solid material made from dried mushrooms can be used to create a molded infill.
Inserts, packing slips, and receipts - There are a number of things you could include within your package aside from the item itself: instructions, coupon offers, in-store event invitations, and more. These can be layered on top of or beneath products, tucked next to individual items, or attached to the interior lid of the box. Wherever you decide to place your inserts, your packing slip and receipt should always be easy to find.
Wrapping paper and tissue - Colorful tissue paper or wrapping paper can give your products extra flair. It can prolong the element of surprise and/or personalize the experience.. Alternatively, you can use plain brown paper to reinforce a commitment to simplicity and eco-consciousness.
Stickers and tape - Stickers can be used to communicate care instructions or to add some pizzazz to your packaging. You could even enclose a few standalone, branded stickers that serve as an extra treat for customers, who may, in turn, help to market your brand by donning your stickers. The tape on the outside of your package can likewise convey a strong message. Think: Amazon’s easy-to-recognize packaging tape, which has “Prime” written all over it. Paper tape with a water-activated adhesive is recyclable and sturdy enough for heavy items, while clear plastic tape is convenient and lighter weight.
These seemingly-minor accessories can add to the customer experience. This YouTube review of an ArtSnacks package even notes how the free decal sticker matches the packaging tape and product instructions, a detail that doesn’t go unnoticed by the art community.
Customization for the Win
When it comes to the design of your packaging, you have two options.
You could use generic packaging that simply does the job. Or, you could use custom, highly branded packaging.
Given how distractions and competition abound online, the second route is likely your best choice. Your packaging can in and of itself serve as a powerful eCommerce marketing strategy.
Take Joolz as an example. This European manufacturer of top-of-the-line strollers and accessories uses its packaging to appeal to its target buyer (parents) and core users (young children).
Joolz practically built a whole marketing campaign around its recyclable packaging. In line with its commitment to sustainability, Joolz’s shipping boxes include instructions for transforming its cardboard boxes into play airplanes, birdhouses, kid-sized seating, or toy animals.
Here are ways to ensure that your packaging is memorable:
Color schemes and logos - Though it may cost more to add color to your boxes, bags, and other material, these elements can help to drive home brand awareness. There are also inexpensive alternatives to full custom color. For example, you can order a custom stamp for a relatively low price to mark your packaging.
Fonts and prose style - Your brand voice should guide how any text on your eCommerce packaging is written. Moreover, any printed font should mirror the branding of your online store to create an instant association with your company.
Recycling instructions - If your materials and containers are recyclable, print instructions for how your customers can properly dispose of them. You can print those instructions right on the box or bag, using verbiage that reflects your brand.
The personal touch - Thank you notes can go a long way, as can certain usage instructions or personalized recommendations for further shopping. For instance, if you own a subscription box business for people interested in fashion, you could include a note written by a stylist recommending other styles to try.
How to get started with packaging design
Creating eCommerce packaging is a process that combines creativity with practicality—plus lots of testing. There are various steps to keep in mind, which we’ve broken out below:
Gather requirements. Make sure you have your product dimensions, product weight, branding guidelines, and any special instructions in-hand before embarking on this project.
Crunch the numbers. Calculate both one-time costs of creating your packages (like design work) and the per-piece costs that will accrue each time you order more boxes or bags. Factor in any new weight-related shipping costs, as well, so that you can properly project your total bill.
Tell a story. As you consider ways to incorporate branding, product instructions, ingredients, and other materials in your packaging, check that all of this information is presented in a logical sequence. For example, you wouldn’t want to print detailed descriptions of enclosed products on the outside of the box (before your customer has opened the package). However, you might want to attach a small, colorful envelope to the interior of the box lid for this purpose.
Develop a prototype. Before mass-producing your packaging, do a limited run with your supplier to test that your packaging looks and feels the way you expected.
Test for protection. A “drop test” simulates the jostling and impacts that will occur during transit. Standards for a drop test vary, but a test usually involves knocking items from a specific height multiple times. This is to see whether the corners, edges, and faces of packaging hold up.
Test for coherence. Gather feedback from people outside of your design team to ensure that packaging is appealing and useful. Ask loyal customers for their feedback or launch a poll on social media to see which packaging people prefer.
Test for practicality. Test out various different carriers to ensure compatibility with your packaging and fulfillment process. Some regional carriers may maintain special packaging requirements. Similarly, some states may have legal shipping requirements for specific types of items, such as alcohol, food products, or plants. These may require special labels or tracking information. And, of course, weather can be a factor. Shipping a dozen roses to Minnesota for Valentine’s Day requires a different strategy than sending them to Arizona, where conditions are warm and arid. Easily manage various carriers using Wix eCommerce, which automatically routes orders to the right warehouses, assigns unique tracking numbers, and lets you print shipping labels right from your store.
Roll out and promote the new look. Prepare collateral, website content, and social media posts that alerts customers of the new packaging. This announcement not only lets shoppers know that the products themselves haven’t changed; it’s an opportunity to shine light on any sustainability advances made with your new packaging and/or any new benefits like lower shipping costs.
An opportunity to surprise, delight, and satisfy
eCommerce packaging offers so much more than basic product protection. It offers a chance to connect with customers, tell your brand story, and equip buyers with all the information they need to enjoy the products that have arrived at their doorsteps.
Don’t rush this process or skimp out on materials. Find a solution that represents your brand well and ensures a great customer experience.
eCommerce Packaging FAQ
What is eCommerce packaging?
eCommerce packaging is the packaging used to ship products that are purchased online. It is important to choose the right packaging for your products, as it can affect the customer's experience and your brand image.
What is the difference between eCommerce packaging and retail packaging?
eCommerce packaging is designed to protect products during shipping, while retail packaging is designed to protect products on the shelf and attract customers. eCommerce packaging is often made from lighter materials, as it does not need to be as durable as retail packaging.
How important is packaging in eCommerce?
Packaging is very important in eCommerce, as it is the first thing that customers see when they receive their order. If the packaging is damaged or does not look professional, it can give customers a negative impression of your brand. Good packaging can also help to protect your products during shipping and prevent them from being damaged.
What are the benefits of using good eCommerce packaging?
Protects products during shipping: Good packaging can help to protect your products from damage during shipping. This is especially important for fragile products or products that are shipped long distances.
Attracts customers: Well-designed packaging can help to attract customers and make them more likely to buy from your store. This is because packaging can be used to create a positive first impression and showcase your brand's personality.
Increases customer satisfaction: Customers who receive their orders in good condition are more likely to be satisfied with their purchase. This can lead to repeat business and positive word-of-mouth marketing.
How do I improve my eCommerce packaging?
Use high-quality materials: Using high-quality materials will help to protect your products and make your packaging look more professional.
Design your packaging with your customers in mind: Think about what your customers will like and what will make them feel good about receiving your products.
Add branding to your packaging: Your packaging is a great way to showcase your brand's logo and colors. This can help to create brand awareness and make your products more memorable.
Include a thank-you note: A handwritten thank-you note is a great way to show your customers that you appreciate their business.
Editor, Wix eCommerce
Allison is the editor for the Wix eCommerce blog, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.