The thrill of unboxing is gone, now that, well, everything must be unboxed.
With e-commerce shopping on the rise, the number of boxes people receive is at an all-time high. As such, regularly breaking down boxes has become a chore, and the wastefulness of it all has become glaringly apparent. Add to that the ubiquity of Amazon’s bare-bones packaging — not to mention current, widespread delivery delays — and the bar of what a shopper wants to see on their doorstep has effectively been lowered. The assuredness of getting what they ordered in a timely manner trumps any promise of a luxurious unboxing experience.
In step, even high-end brands are rethinking their packaging strategies. Many upgraded their packaging in 2020 as one of multiple knee-jerk attempts to recreate the in-store experience for online shoppers. Now, more are saving their pennies and prioritizing boxes that meet the ever-changing sustainability standards.
On Monday, Valentino announced it’s moving to more sustainable packaging for in-store and online purchases. For shipped goods, that includes boxes and tissue paper made from materials derived from sustainably managed forests. Garment covers are now made from recycled cotton, and gift boxes are made from recycled cardboard.
And in late October, timed ahead of COP26, luxury packaging company Delta Global revealed what it called the FutureBox. The customizable, recyclable box closes without tape or magnets and incorporates materials that are Forest Stewardship Council accredited. Delta Global’s clients include Net-a-Porter, Tom Ford and MatchesFashion.
Currently, brands are navigating the need to both “be seen as doing the right thing and genuinely want to do the right thing,” said Robert Lockyer, CEO of Delta Global. The company’s business with luxury e-commerce retailers has increased by 40% during the pandemic.
For its part, 6-year-old e-commerce retailer Maison de Mode, which specializes in sustainable luxury fashion, has taken the same, minimalist approach to packaging since day one. On the stage of the Glossy Future of Fashion Summit in October, Maison de Mode CEO Hassan Pierre said, “Packaging is not a thing that anybody cares about anymore. When Net-a-Porter was [pioneering luxury e-commerce] 10 years ago, it was of interest. But we all buy Amazon in boxes now. What makes the online space special and ‘luxury’ is true human customer service.”
This week, Pierre elaborated, saying: “Consumers’ real [packaging] goals are to not have a bunch of boxes sitting and waiting to be thrown out, and to not see another giant Amazon box with one little item. They want packaging that’s minimal-waste and easy, in terms of being able to get rid of it.”
As Sephora’s head of e-commerce, Carolyn Bojanowski, said on this week’s Glossy Beauty Podcast, convenience and time are now “the ultimate” luxuries.
In September, tech solutions firm Pitney Bowes announced its Parcel Shipping Index, showing that U.S. parcel volume increased 37%, to 20 billion, from 2019- 2020. Amazon’s number of parcels alone increased 127%, to 4.2 billion.
In its pop-up stores, Maison de Mode uses bags and tissue made by sustainable packaging company No Issue that are branded using soy ink. But as its business model is centered on drop-shipping, the company forfeits much control when it comes to online orders. It provides a thank-you note to customers for their first purchase only and takes advantage of the carbon-neutral option when direct shipping is necessary. It also requests that partner brands avoid common shipping materials like popcorn fillers and plastic when shipping their products to its stores.
Of course, “just shipping the goods makes an impact” on the environment, Pierre said. And moving forward, he hopes to avoid adding more boxes to the world.
Companies are popping up to fill that demand. For example, there’s 5-year-old Returnity, which makes reusable shipping and delivery packaging for companies including Rent the Runway and New Balance. Pre-pandemic, its business was heavily centered on rental companies, but as that market got hit hard, it began looking beyond circular logistics models. That expansion hasn’t come without its challenges.
“Customers are really hungry for sustainable solutions, but they’re very busy. And [for providers,] solutions are hard to scale,” said Michael Newman, CEO of Returnity. He largely owed the latter to the costs involved. When given the option to send a Returnity package back to a retailer for reuse, a typical customer does so just 70% of the time. As such, each bag gets used just 3-4 times, on average. To financially make sense for partner retailers, Returnity targets a 95% return rate and 20 use cycles for its packages.
Where it’s recently found success is “starting with the most sustainable part” of a retailer’s business, Newman said. For example, it’s linked with Aveda for its product refill program and New Balance for its sponsored team uniform samples. And it’s seen inbound interest from companies looking to alleviate future packaging supply risk, as Returnly’s bags stay in the field for 1-2 years. In addition, brands hoping to secure the packaging program needed to reach their 2025 sustainability goals are reaching out.
Consumers’ general “packaging fatigue” leaves Returnity in a prime spot, Newman said.
While many brands come to Returnity with grand plans for the design of their shipping bags, most settle on the company’s recommended streamlined black or navy bags, where markings by shippers will remain unseen. “The more complicated [the bag], the more expensive it is, the more likely that it will break and the harder it is to educate customers [on the return process],” he said.
In other words, its partners are choosing sustainable packaging and practicality over standout, more Instagrammable bags and boxes.
On that note, plenty of brands, including those marketing themselves as sustainable, have received social media backlash for their use of wasteful packaging. Yet, it’s clear that beautiful packaging can pay for itself by way of the organic marketing it drives. Take TikTok’s #cheapestthing trend: people purchase the most affordable item from a luxury brand, like a $35 Louis Vuitton city guide, simply to partake in the luxurious experience of being a Louis Vuitton shopper. Receiving and opening the brand’s signature package is central to that experience. TikTok unboxing videos using the hashtag have 3.7 million views.
It calls to mind a conversation I had with Ian Rogers while interviewing him for the 2017 Glossy 50 list. He was chief digital officer at LVMH at the time, and he encouraged me to purchase even a lipstick from the conglomerate’s 24 Sèvres, now called 24S, to experience the packaging. It’s customizable and features a pop-up Eiffel Towel — to this day still, according to its website (and social media).
The popularity of unboxing and even haul videos on YouTube have held on since January 2020, despite the supposed, pandemic-driven rise of the conscious consumer.
So where does this leave brands?
In October, Atlanta-based consultant Howard White launched lifestyle brand Constant Mountain, kicking it off with a hero $200 jacket featuring a hoodie-style kangaroo pocket. Inspired by the packaging of brands like Allbirds and On Running, he said he decided to “make an investment in the brand” by upping his spend on the packaging for the “flagship” jacket product. The result was an orange rectangular box with a top that lifts open from the side, revealing an image by a local photographer of Kennesaw Mountain. Topping the picture is the brand’s tagline, “Life is a constant mountain. Enjoy the view.” And the base features a pattern made from the CM logo. A folded-in flap references the “Constant Mountain family.”
The box comes complete with complimentary extras, including a pair of koozies and a set of bookmarks topped with QR codes driving to the website.
White said he was considering going with an alternative, more affordable, box made out of craft paper, but eventually decided the investment in the “shiny box” was worth it.
“I’m still dealing in lower volumes, so the price difference is significant,” he said. “But I want people to see it on the doorstep and immediately know what it is, and get excited. And I want them to open it, and feel warm and cozy and happy. And I want them to keep the box.”
The back of the box, which also states that it’s made from recyclable content, makes that clear: “Please reuse or recycle responsibly.”
Choosing between one of two extremes — ultra-simple and sustainable or elaborate and reusable — seems to be a brand’s best bet. The latter is catching on.
“The packaging with the tissue paper and the beautiful box and the ribbon was season one of unboxing. That’s fizzled,” said Pierre. “Now, people like Beyoncé with Ivy Park are elevating the experience. [To celebrities and influencers], they’re giving a full wardrobe [in a trunk], and it’s special and unique. And they get to have a great unboxing situation and then keep the box. The bar has been raised.”
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Image via Rent the Runway