November 23, 2021

Black Friday & Beyond: Is Your Packaging Set Up for Success Online?

The biggest shopping event of the year has evolved with the rise of e-commerce. Why hasn’t package design testing evolved with it?

“Black Friday” is coming up! Actually, it’s taking place right now. Come to think of it, it was also happening last week, too.

No, we haven’t entered a space-time vortex just in time for the holidays… it’s just that “Black Friday” has changed. The term has gone from referring to a 24-hour event to a nearly month-long one, and from primarily in-store to a bricks-and-clicks bonanza. 

“Black Friday” no longer refers to a day, but a retail concept—one equally spread between online and in-store environments. Brick-and-mortar buying is still a big part of the equation, but the retail landscape has changed immensely (over the last two years, let alone the last 20). Which is why it’s shocking that much of package design testing seems largely stuck in the past. 

Planograms, for instance, have been a part of the consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) industry since at least the 1980s. For context: At the time, the personal computer was still in its infancy, the Sony Walkman was popular, and the fax machine was the cutting edge of communication technology. We look at these devices as quaint relics today, but somehow we still embrace a design-testing standard that is not only just as dated, but seems to ignore the reality of the marketplace.

Planograms are an outmoded paradigm

Planograms were built around the idea of viewing package designs “in context,” which was an understandable idea at the time. Now more than ever, though, this is wildly misguided.   

At the most basic level, planograms are dependent on a shelf—something you’ll find in exactly zero percent of online shopping scenarios (forgetting the fact that, even when it comes to traditional retail stores, one shelf can’t possibly represent them all). Consumers have demonstrated an appetite to increase their online purchases, so how is a model born before the age of email equipped to reflect the increasingly complex retail landscape?

Brands have less control over where they are listed online as well (algorithms or filter arrangements take care of that), which means there is no “brand blocking” or strategic sequencing of products. On a store shelf, there’s an implication of the category “pecking order” by virtue of location—not so in e-commerce.

And this is just the beginning of the discrepancies. Planograms simply don’t reflect the way consumers shop anymore.

Recognizing the nostalgic nature of planograms, savvy marketers in the CPG space have started questioning the status quo. "If you think about television 15 to 20 years ago, there were essentially three main TV networks. Similarly, the retail world was much more consolidated back then,” said Neil Cowan, brand design director at Kellogg’s. Now, there’s incredible diversification and fragmentation. Of course, Walmart is still important, but there’s, Amazon, Instacart and many, many other distribution channels. We’re being short-sighted if we just rely on one or two planograms to understand our visual brand performance across retail contexts.”

E-commerce is a great equalizer

The meteoric rise of online shopping—a trend that has only accelerated during the pandemic—hasn’t supplanted visits to the store. It has changed the calculus for design, though, because a design must succeed in any environment. It’s the package design itself that’s important, not some idealized version of a shelf it may (or, just as likely, may not) be sitting on. 

Some of the advantages once enjoyed by large brands have been mitigated. They can’t rely on “brand blocking” to attract attention, the competitive set is much larger, and the way their brand is presented is less under their control. The playing field for packaging has changed, so design has to work harder. 

Marcela Melero, global brand vice president of Dove Skin Cleansing, took note of this shift in the marketplace and the challenges it presented. “Previously, our competitive set was defined by what you’d find in a Target or Walmart, but the shift to e-commerce included many more indie or beauty-store brands, and they were accelerating trends like premiumness and modernity,” she said. “When consumers are shopping online, they don’t know if something is a mass brand or a niche brand—they just see body washes, and we needed to take that into account.”

An opportunity awaits

There are so many differences between online and brick-and-mortar outlets, but one thing is the same across both: Your package design. It’s the one thing that is both within your brand’s control and seen by 100% of category consumers. It’s your last, best chance to close the sale no matter where that sale takes place.

Maximizing your design’s effectiveness can pay dividends across the retail spectrum, whether online or in-store. And technology allows us for design intelligence and testing to be much better, more nimble and more affordable than ever before.

Black Friday has changed in part because the way we shop has changed. Shouldn’t package design testing follow suit? We think so.