Protective Packaging Considerations for Omnichannel

Omnichannel retailing has accelerated service expectations and permanently changed the competitive landscape.

What started out as retailers shipping from a handful of distribution centers, now also includes brick-and-mortar stores and other fulfillment operations.  It’s about finding the shortest distance between the product and the consumer to over deliver on the brand promise.  In short, the consumer doesn’t care where the product is coming from; they want to know how quickly they can get it.

However, the shift toward omnichannel delivery has created a new set of challenges—how to create a seamless customer experience via a consistent package presentation, regardless of the product’s point of origin.

When product was shipped from a small number of distribution locations, it was fairly easy to standardize the packaging needed to protect the product in transit.   The protective packaging supplier worked with the retailer to develop cost-effective material and system solutions that would support brand image and operational productivity and damage metrics.  Typically, the size of the distribution facilities made it easy to install uniform solutions, regardless of their geographic location.

Now with tens and even hundreds of retail outlets participating in the fulfillment process, the dynamics are much more complicated—largely due to the complexity of scale, space and personnel skill set.

Here is what you need to consider if you are an omnichannel retailer.

  • Audit. Your protective packaging supplier should work with you to conduct a full audit of your delivery channels.
  • Space.  A review of your retail outlet footprint will tell you what space can be repurposed to create a pack station and storage of related supplies.
  • Packaging materials.  You will want to select materials that can suitably protect a wide variety of items—from home goods to hardware to apparel—that may be shipped from a store.  When a consumer receives their shipment, the impression it makes upon arrival is critical.  A damage-free package with aesthetic appeal is the first step to repeat business.
  • On demand production.  Being able to produce protective materials on demand is a great way to minimize inventory space.  On the other hand, it means that the floor space to install equipment has to be considered.  Additionally, having a coordinated strategy to install, repair or replace machines needs to be part of the plan.
  • Employee safety/training. Teaching employees how to safely and effectively operate the equipment is critical.  Also, it is important to train employees on how to properly pack items with the right amount of material so that the protective attributes of the packing material is maximized, but cost per package doesn’t exceed the parameters set. Part of the challenge is that many retail environments have seasonal employees and/or high turnover.  Providing simple, online and in-store instructional resources can mean the difference between success and failure.
  • Controlled roll-out test.  It’s critical to validate the process and to also use this opportunity to gather feedback from employees and customers.  Suppliers and retailers can then adapt and perfect the process before going to full implementation.  This allows everyone involved to establish realistic expectations and measure success.

There are many different approaches in creating a seamless packaging experience for the consumer.  An illustration of this point would be to offer the retailer two different ways to supply the same cushioning material.

For example, hybrid cushioning (a series of square air-filled pockets) can be made via an “on demand” piece of equipment or can be delivered un-inflated to the retail location.  In the systems approach, roll stock is fed through one end of the machine and it comes out on the other side as sections of filled/sealed air pockets. The machine can produce exactly the quantity that is needed automatically.

In that scenario, the larger manufacturing or distribution center locations typically would have one or more of these systems creating material “on demand,” supporting the pack station’s requirements.   At the retail location, the employee takes a flat, pre-made pad and inflates it via a one-way valve that pushes the air through a series of small square pillows.  This is a fast, simple process that is easily taught to the retail employee. Further, because the pads are shipped flat to the store location, very little inventory space is needed for storage.

So, regardless of the product origination point, the consumer has the same packaging experience.

Although the retailer’s national solution matrix is much more complex than this one example, it illustrates how important it is for brand owners to work closely with their protective packaging supplier.  The end game is to create omnichannel solutions that meet cost and performance objectives as well as providing customers with a seamless, brand-enhancing experience.

Ivan Brewington is the omnichannel business development manager for Pregis Corporation.

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