A version of this article appeared in Mediapost on September 10, 2018.

Each time a new package is designed for a food or beverage product, brand leaders must ask themselves if they’re giving shoppers what they want. Is this package what shoppers expect? Are they meeting shoppers’ desires?

As shopping behaviors and the path to purchase have been disrupted by online and mobile shopping, shoppers’ expectations of the product experience are also changing.

A recent report, “Packaging and the Digital Shopper: Meeting Expectations in Food and Beverage” asked shoppers about their expectations. Forty-seven percent expect that the item they ordered online will look exactly the same when they see it in-person. Although 37 percent say that it is OK to have “minor variations” between the online image and the package they receive in the mail, only 9 percent are fine with a package that arrives with different colors or imagery.

If consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies fail to meet shoppers’ expectations, returned products are the outcome. Thirty-four percent of shoppers surveyed had returned a product that they had purchased online because of the packaging. These returns can be costly; according to the 2017 Customer Returns in the Retail Industry by Appriss Retail, $351 billion worth of products were returned in 2017. To put that number in perspective, there were $4.99 trillion in retail sales in 2017, according to Statista; this means more than 7 percent of all sales were returned.

The online food and beverage market has great potential, as the report finds that about 99 percent of people have bought a food or beverage product online. Additionally, 65 percent of shoppers say that they’ll buy more items online over the next 18 months, while only 9 percent say that they won’t buy any food and beverage products online in the future.

But why do consumers shop for food and beverage products on the internet?

Nearly half of shoppers buy online because they want a better price, while a third want to avoid store lines or simply can’t find a product locally. About a quarter of shoppers buy online because the item is too bulky to carry out in person, while about 20 percent say that they don’t have time to go to the store.

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Mintel believes that a big barrier to online purchases is the shopper’s desire to see the product before they buy it. This means that brand leaders must work closely with design, marketing and ecommerce to ensure high quality imagery of product and packaging are readily available on ecommerce sites.

If image is everything, consider this: 13 percent of shoppers said they had taken a selfie with a food or beverage product in the past three months. While this is a small group, their treatment of products shows they are willing to provide your brand free advertising, as long as the consumer experience, including the packaging, meets their expectations.

Also, many shoppers simply don’t trust what looks different: 26 percent of returns due to packaging were because the product didn’t “look right” or looked like a counterfeit. If a shopper likes and trusts an online image of a product enough to buy it, but is then unsettled by what they receive, this is a problem. Marketers, designers and packaging engineers must ensure that the image of the product online is a good match for the actual product package that ends up in the hands of the shopper.

Implications for collaboration

Above all, to ensure shopper satisfaction, the packaging must be aligned with ecommerce and marketing. The best way to do this, I believe, is through adopting the best tools and practices for collaboration. When companies digitize their communication and tools, they can start automating tasks to remove errors and save time and cost.

For example, linking the text from packaging files with the data that feeds ecommerce sites, instead of simply uploading a picture file allows shoppers to better “see” the contents of the package and allows products to be more searchable online. The ingredients and nutritional facts do sell the products for the brand, but only if they are legible by humans and computers.

To meet expectations of quality may require conversations with the packaging manufacturer. Luckily, new technologies are available that allow brand leaders and manufacturers to digitize their work, improving quality and speed. Once a designer, marketer or packaging engineer has digitized a task, they can automate part of that task and connect the output to other departments using workflow software, allowing the entire company and the suppliers to all be on the same page. This is a huge victory for consistency, collaboration and communication.

CPGs can also leverage print quality solutions and programs to catch errors, ensuring that no low-quality packages enter the supply chain. Many companies still rely on the human eye for this, but digital tools are not susceptible to human fatigue and can eliminate embarrassing mistakes to make their way into shoppers’ hands. One bad package may not seem like a big deal, but bad news spreads quickly through social media. CPG companies can avoid complaints by unsatisfied shoppers on social networks if they can be confident about the quality of each package across all channels.

After considering the research in the report, CPG companies must look at their packages and ask themselves some important questions: Are we being consistent? Are we giving shoppers all of the data they desire? Are we using the best technology to make our company more productive? To leave any of these questions unanswered is to risk leaving shoppers unsatisfied and missing the high mark of their expectations.

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