Make way for Mother’s Day

With Mother’s Day fast approaching, Isabel Rocher, head of e-commerce solutions at DS Smith explores how the packaging industry is meeting the challenges posed by the e-commerce revolution and in particular, how it handles seasonal peaks such as Mother’s Day.

This year, UK consumers are expected to spend around £1.4 billion on Mother’s Day cards, flowers, gifts and services. This makes it a bigger retail event than Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day and inevitably e-retailers get their fair share of the sales. For example, in the “flowers and gift” category, previous daily online sales in March were 70 per cent higher than in January and February – a sign of the flurry of activity this annual event brings.

While we used to expect shoppers to buy their Mother’s Day gifts a week or so in advance, the dawn of e-commerce has resulted in the sales peak coming much closer to the day itself. In 2014, peak shopping days landed five days prior to Mother’s Day and on the day before, suggesting that shoppers were taking advantage of faster delivery services and “click and collect”. As this trend continues and many consumers shop at the last minute, the pressure is on for e-retailers to be able to turnaround orders at previously unimagined speed and to have everything in place for a seriously busy week.

While many of us in the packaging industry are used to keeping ahead of the technological curve, the pace and complexity of the e-commerce supply chain represents a whole different set of challenges when compared to more conventional retail channels.

Strength and flexibility

For example, there are up to 50 touch-points in the e-commerce supply cycle and therefore potentially 50 separate opportunities at which a package is handled by a machine or by human hands and, crucially, each of these points can bring their own, unique risks. Whether it’s something as simple as a package being returned to a depot several times following a delivery failure or the more futuristic vulnerabilities created by a delivery via drone (as DHL is already doing with medical supplies in Germany), packaging needs to be structurally sound and more adaptable than ever before.

At DS Smith, we’ve invested in a unique testing facility that replicates the rigours and forces of the e-commerce supply cycle until we’re confident that the package has the strength it needs to protect our customers’ products whatever the type or length of its journey from the supplier.

So that’s performance, but what about adaptability? There’s been a huge amount of discussion about ‘the final mile’ and what this means for both suppliers and customers. A large number of innovative ideas have been trialled and there are many more on the way. You can make a case for ‘click and collect’ being the current leader in this space although in recent months as retailers have started to charge a premium for the service, I get the sense that its time in the sun may be waning.  Collection lockers have been trialled with some success at tube stations around London, and car manufacturers have begun to experiment with facilitating deliveries to people’s car boots via a locking system activated by smartphone apps. Some have even speculated that a company such as Uber could play a significant role in ‘final mile’ deliveries, so customers may need to get used to sharing their taxi home with someone’s online purchases.

The innovation challenge is in the ‘final’ mile, and for those of us in the packaging industry our aim has to be to develop products that meet the needs of the supply chain, the retailer and the shopper whilst still remaining cost-effective.

Home theatre

Another challenge that e-commerce brings is that a package that arrives in a customer’s home is required to fulfil many of the functions that would have traditionally happened in the store. A product that stands out in store still needs the ‘wow factor’ when delivered inside a box and in an environment free of sales assistants, POS and ambience – packaging also needs to help with post-purchase engagement. In other words, you want the opening of a package on Mother’s Day to a be a special event, a moment where a customer feels the thrill of a good purchase; you certainly don’t want to shower them with polystyrene filler or pose a test of dexterity and ingenuity to get the package open in the first place.

Environmental impact

We’re also working hard to reduce the environmental impact of all our packaging products. A complaint that shoppers regularly level at online retailers is the use of excessive packaging.

Although we recognise that there is still work to be done in this area, when you consider the breadth of the product range offered by online retailers, and as a result the almost infinite combinations of products purchased and shipped together, you can start to understand why this is a complex issue for the packaging industry to resolve. As an industry, we need to work together to address this issue, and continue to innovate and create packaging that is highly efficient in its use of space, even when multiple, differing objects are delivered together.

Embracing e-commerce

The e-commerce revolution is being driven by simplicity and convenience, and by a generation of shoppers for whom the use of connected devices to order products is not just a preference but an instinctive act. The paradox of this situation is that the simpler the shopping experience for the customer, the more complex and diverse the requirements are for all of us involved in the supply cycle. During seasonal peaks such as Mother’s Day, as online purchases flood in to homes and offices around the country, these complex requirements are compounded.

March may be a busy time for e-retailers but there are rich rewards for those who deliver an exceptional service. For the packaging industry, our products need to perform in ways that were inconceivable a few years ago. But it’s a challenge we relish and one that puts a spring in our step on our way to work every morning.