ECommerce Packaging: The Ultimate Guide

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ECommerce packaging is the closest your business will come to giving your customers a personal touch. The best eCommerce packaging for the optimal unboxing experience involves a mix of the right box and the right infill. These small details take packaging your product from an everyday delivery to a truly custom package.

Red Stag Fulfillment has updated this guide to highlight an ongoing focus on greening packaging and fulfillment. Whether you’re looking for an angle to advertise on Earth Day or have made a more significant commitment to being eco-friendly, the packaging is a straightforward way to demonstrate these values.

eCommerce packaging

What is eCommerce packaging?

ECommerce packaging is how you protect your product, establish your brand identity, and control your shipping costs. It can both enhance your customer’s experience and improve your profitability. Packaging includes the box as well as any infill you use, plus tape and inserts like coupons. If your product ships inside of its standard retail packaging — which is typical for products like furniture — then you should think of it as your eCommerce packaging as well.

How should I package my products?

Your eCommerce packaging choices will affect your production and shipping costs. Weight and costs are important considerations because they can increase a product’s shipping expense as boxes get larger or infill gets heavier.

Learn more about size and cost relationships with our DIM weight calculator here.

Packaging and infill can impact your bottom line in another way: returns. A well-packed order will arrive in perfect condition. ECommerce packaging that can’t survive the delivery process will lead to damaged goods and disappointed customers.

Your package design can enhance your customer’s experience and improve your profitability. It’s essential to understand your options so you can make the best choice for your business. Here is your ultimate guide to eCommerce packaging and infill (and don’t forget the tape).

To box or not to box?

First on the list is the box or bag all your products will be packed in. It’s what your customer will see first when they look in their mailbox. Branded packaging is an option that may be worth the price if it creates a memorable experience (especially because some people reuse their boxes). As the number and types of products shipped via eCommerce have grown, so have packaging choices.

The type of eCommerce packaging that best suits your products depends on several factors. The first is weight. For heavier items, a sturdy box is needed to ensure safe delivery. The second is breakability. A fragile product, even if it’s lightweight, needs protection during shipping. The final factor is the value of the product. When you ship high-value items, spending a bit extra on protective packaging can be a good investment.

The cost of packing materials can vary greatly, depending on type and quantity. If you outsource your shipping, you’ll pay for your eCommerce packaging through your 3PL services provider. Your fulfillment warehouse is a volume purchaser of cardboard boxes. Even with a markup, you’ll probably pay less for packing supplies through your fulfillment center.

A quick note on environmental impact and branding

Today’s eCommerce companies have a wide range of packaging options to choose from, and we’ll dive into many of those shortly. One element that we’re encouraging you to think about now is the direct connection between your packaging and your branding.

Many consumers have become more environmentally conscious and make some purchase decisions based on a company being eco-friendly. Choosing such options for your packaging has the potential to impact that first sale. They may also play a role in any follow-up purchases, either people enjoying your eco-friendly packaging or elements like Styrofoam upsetting customers and causing them to look elsewhere.

The modern consumer has many options for eCommerce. They want to buy from someone who has the same values as they do. In many cases, eco-friendly packaging can help you demonstrate that shared value and culture.

Based on our own experiences as consumers, we would also recommend that you include clear recycling information for any packaging or infill. Not everyone will understand what materials can be recycled. If you use compostable infill or elements — such as bags made from vegetable starches — add a note to your label or provide a website link that explains how to dispose of the materials in an environmentally conscious way.

Now, let’s look at some of your packaging options.

Cardboard boxes

Corrugated cardboard boxes are still the eCommerce packaging of choice for much of the industry. Cardboard is sturdy, doesn’t add much to your package’s weight, and is recyclable.

eCommerce packaging

For very heavy or very fragile products, double-walled cardboard provides an extra layer of protection and strength. In some cases, a product comes in its own box that is suitable for shipping. However, in some cases, it makes sense to add a plain brown cardboard box on top. If you’re shipping a high-value item or a highly desired item, such as a flat-screen TV or an X-box, an outer box that obscures what’s inside is a good security measure.

One of the most common mistakes in choosing a packaging solution is using boxes that are too big for the products inside. Customers don’t like to deal with boxes that are too large. In addition, oversized boxes require more infill, increasing the box’s weight and raising the cost of shipping. The DIM weight pricing models used by UPS, FedEx, and USPS penalize shippers for sending products in oversized boxes. With DIM weight, the shipping charge is calculated using the greater of the package’s weight or a formula based on the dimensions of the box.

The cost of cardboard boxes depends on several factors. If you can use a standard size and buy in quantity, your price will go down. If you need a custom size or want your logo printed on the box, that will be an added cost. Double-walled cardboard is pricier than standard corrugated boxes.

Bags and envelopes

If you sell something that is light and not fragile, a plastic mailing bag, a poly mailer, or Tyvek envelope can be a great choice. Bags and envelopes are lightweight, strong, easy to store, and self-sealing. They work well for shipping small clothing orders. You can also place a small, boxed item inside an envelope or bag instead of over-boxing it. As an added benefit, these mailers are waterproof.

Unfortunately, most plastic bags and Tyvek envelopes are not recyclable. You may find some options that are, but these are not always as strong.

Padded mailers

For shipping small or flat items that need a bit of extra protection, a padded envelope is a good option. This is a great way to ship CDs, jewelry, or other flat but delicate items. Some mailers are padded with shredded paper, so they’re easy to recycle. Padded envelopes filled with bubble wrap are very protective but a less green choice.

There are greener options from companies such as EcoEnclose, but they tend to have caveats with use. These padded mailers, for example, are made from recycled materials, but the customer must remove portions of the mailer to allow it to biodegrade safely after they receive it in the mail.

Custom boxes

Creating a custom box can elevate your brand beyond the simple cardboard box. You can create an experience that your customer will enjoy, appreciate, and remember. They might even share it with their followers on Instagram. A custom box can have the added benefit of fitting your products more precisely than standard-sized boxes. This ensures your orders will ship snug and secure.

eCommerce packaging

A custom box can go beyond a logo or design on the outside. There are experts who can help your business achieve a one-of-a-kind experience for your customer. FastKit is a great example of a high-end company that will deliver a high-end custom masterpiece. It’s worked with some big names (Domino’s, Swiffer, and Marvel, to name a few).

The best part about these custom options is that they’re more accessible than ever before. You don’t have to break your first million before you invest in custom packaging. You can give your customers a high-end experience without a high-end cost.

Services like Packhelp or Lumi let you design your own packaging elements. These companies allow you to view a 3D image of what the final product will look like. Websites like Cratejoy are an excellent place for packaging for subscription box-based businesses. A custom package may be even more important if you’re selling a monthly subscription box.

Types of Packaging

Choosing the right tape for your eCommerce packaging

Tape may seem like the most boring part of eCommerce packaging but it’s a key to packaging success. If you ship your orders in boxes, packing tape is literally the glue that holds it all together.

Basic clear acrylic tape is fine for boxes holding up to about 15 pounds. It’s inexpensive and, with a good tape dispenser, easy to use.

eCommerce packaging - tape

For a more professional look, water-activated tape is a better option. Reinforced, water-activated kraft tape provides a strong seal that will hold together packages of 25 pounds or more. You’ll need a dispenser to wet the tape if you choose this option.

Infill is the key to successful eCommerce packaging

When you ship products in a box, in most cases you need to add infill to keep them from moving around during shipping. Infill adds extra padding and stability to ensure your orders arrive undamaged.

There are many types of infill to choose from. Amazon, one of the largest shippers in the world, uses a combination of air-filled pillows and brown paper. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to infill. You’ll need to strategize based on your specific product and shipping. You may decide, like Amazon, that you want to use more than one type of infill to protect your products during shipping. Again, the many infill options ensure you’ll be able to find a broad range of eco-friendly fillers on the market. Be sure to test any option in real-world scenarios to ensure that it protects goods adequately. It is typically less environmentally friendly for you to have to ship multiple products to a customer — with all the driving, packaging, and more — because you’re using more gas, materials, and space. 

Kraft paper

eCommerce packaging

Brown kraft paper is one of the most versatile and flexible types of package infill. You can easily rip it into whatever size sheets you need or crumple it to fit any infill need. Kraft paper also has the benefit of being completely recyclable. It takes less chemical input to make kraft paper than to make bleached white paper products. As a bonus, you can source kraft made from recycled paper.

Air pillows

Air pillows are the air-filled plastic sacs that are an increasingly common type of infill. They are one of the lightest forms of infill for eCommerce packaging. If you’re concerned about the weight of your package and need a lot of infill, air pillows may be the cheapest choice. They can be recycled under some circumstances, but it’s a safe bet that most of them end up in the landfill.

Packing peanuts

Peanuts are the classic infill but can be messy and frustrating to work with or receive. The original Styrofoam peanuts are feather light – but that’s part of the problem. They tend to escape the box and float away. This can cause problems on both the packing and receiving end. Styrofoam is not recyclable, and many cities and states have outlawed the use of Styrofoam peanuts.

Packing peanuts made from cornstarch are much more ecologically friendly and easier to dispose of. They can even be composted or dissolved in water. However, the individual peanuts still tend to float around. Most customers consider either kind of packing peanuts a nuisance. Think carefully if you’re going to use them.

Bubble wrap

eCommerce packaging - bubble wrap

Bubble wrap is great for wrapping delicate items. It’s also fun to pop the bubbles. Your customers may consider bubble wrap infill a bonus treat and not just packaging. Since 2019, more local recycling efforts have started to include support for recycling bubble wrap. It may be worth telling your customers that many collection points for recycling plastic bags will now also take bubble wrap, giving the customer a chance to enjoy the pop and then toss it in a safe, eco-friendly way.

Foam wrap

Foam wrap is an alternative to bubble wrap for wrapping fragile products. The fact that it is thin, light, and easy to work with makes foam wrap appealing. Unfortunately, this product is not recyclable and can create environmental problems. Fortunately, innovations in infill give you excellent green alternatives.

Shredded cardboard

Shredded cardboard infill is a great way to recycle and wrap at the same time. All you need is the machine that turns old cardboard into accordion-like sheets. These sheets can securely wrap around fragile items to protect them during shipping. This choice is the ultimate in eco-friendly packaging. On the receiving end, it’s easy for customers to remove and recycle.

Types of Infill

Ecological eCommerce branding

Going for the green vibe is a sure win these days. Customers are getting more eco-conscious and want to support companies that they feel align with their values. Using eco-friendly packaging made of recycled, recyclable, or biodegradable materials will position your brand as environmentally conscious. Whatever you do, don’t use an infill like Styrofoam peanuts to pack a product marketed as green.

There are many places to source eco-friendly eCommerce packaging. EcoEnclose offers a full line of compostable, biodegradable, and sustainable boxes, mailers, and tape. The company is committed to being earth-friendly, down to the soy-based ink on their boxes. They’ll also work with you to come up with a packaging style that fits your product perfectly.

Look for options or contact us to learn more about where you might be able to transition to eco-friendly materials during your fulfillment process.

Extra touches in eCommerce packaging

ECommerce packaging isn’t just about the materials you use to get your orders safely to your customers. What you put inside the box in addition to the products can made a big impression. Think of it as the physical manifestation of your brand voice.

Here are some items to consider as you figure out what you want to ship with each order.

Include the receipt

The receipt is a surprisingly important component of the packaging experience. Your customers expect an itemized receipt for the order, but it often gets forgotten. Don’t just include a receipt; make the receipt memorable. Make sure it fits with and furthers your overall branding. Spend a little time to make sure that it doesn’t detract from the experience. With a little creativity, your receipt can complement your order.

Offer rewards

The perfect place to further your branding efforts and encourage loyalty is in the box. Your next sale starts when your customer opens their order. Include a coupon with a unique discount code for additional purchases within a certain amount of time. Or add an invite to a loyalty-based rewards program or early access to an upcoming product launch.

Add Color with tissue paper

Tissue paper is delicate, and we associate it with gifts. Using it to wrap your products will impart that sense of luxury and fun to the customer. Tissue paper boosts the perception of quality. It can also help reinforce your branding. Use solid, on-brand colors or get custom-printed tissue. Companies like DigiWrap and NoIssue sell both options.

Use stickers

Probably one of the easiest and cheapest options for in-box branding is stickers. You can use them to secure tissue paper around the product, or to decorate the outside of the box or the carrier bag. You can include a few extra stickers as a free gift. That will give you free advertising in the process.

There’s a plethora of custom design tools and websites that allow you to print stickers in any color, shape, and size you want. UprintingVistaPrint, and Moo are good places to start. If you’ve never used custom packaging for your products, custom stickers are an inexpensive way to try it out.

eCommerce packaging

What does your packaging say about your products?

Every aspect of your eCommerce packaging, from the box or envelope to the tape and infill, conveys a message. On the most basic level, a well-packed box tells your customers that you take the time to carefully ship their orders. The extra touches you add help build your brand and boost customer loyalty.

If you outsource your fulfillment, you can turn to your fulfillment company for expert advice about eCommerce packaging. Test your order fulfillment company by having orders shipped to yourself. That way, you can better understand your customer’s unboxing experience.

Don’t view your packaging and infill as static. Keep improving your packaging process and materials. As your business grows, you may want to upgrade the look and feel of your eCommerce orders. And, as packaging materials and techniques evolve, you will be able to choose from newer, greener, and more appealing packaging and infill options.

Ask how we’d package your goods in an eco-friendly way.

This article was originally published in August 2019, and was updated on April 16, 2021 to reflect current packaging trends and Red Stag Fulfillment support.

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