Designing Packaging for E-Commerce

April 17,2023 Category: E-Commerce, Packaging Development, Sustainability
Global e-commerce sales exceeded $5 billion in for the first time in 2021 and some projections have them at more than $8 billion by 2026. Regardless of the specific numbers, e-commerce is a crucial sales channel and will only grow in importance in the years to come.

E-commerce packaging design calls for consideration of factors outside the typical scope of retail packaging. Designing packaging that meets the specific needs of the e-commerce channel and distribution environment can be a source of cost savings and sustainability enhancements while providing an engaging experience for consumers.

Product Protection

The primary function of any package is to protect the product as it moves through its distribution environment to the end user. In addition to protection against the ambient and handling conditions during some combination of rail, truck and air shipping, e-commerce packaging has the unique challenge of compensating for the often-unpredictable hazards it can encounter during last-mile delivery.

This last leg of the journey can expose the package to weather and a variety of other factors that may be beyond a brand’s control, including handling by the carrier. Damage to products and packaging can result in costly returns and a hit to the brand’s reputation, so it’s important to ensure packaging holds up.

The potential for product returns and exchanges means packaging needs to be designed to make reverse logistics as easy and convenient for the consumer as possible. Clear instructions on how to re-pack and return the product are important to include, and the packaging should be robust enough to survive the return trip.

ASTM and ISTA have a variety of helpful standards that can help brands test single-parcel packaging against both ambient and handling conditions. Well-planned testing is a crucial element of packaging design strategy and is even more important for packaging that will experience the last-mile distribution environment.


Consumer interest in sustainability is growing in parallel with demand for e-commerce. Sustainable e-commerce packaging requires careful balance between the aforementioned protection needs and design that doesn’t include wasteful overpackaging.

One of the biggest obstacles to sustainable packaging is the need for consumers to separate recyclable components from non-recyclable ones before disposal. Packaging made from multiple materials – corrugate and EPS, for example – increases the likelihood consumers will place the entire packaging in the trash after use. Packaging design that features a single material or a small number of recyclable materials that are easily separated makes it easy for consumers to dispose of packaging responsibly.

E-commerce packaging frees designers from some of the shelf-appeal considerations they need to prioritize for traditional retail packaging. This creates opportunities to provide clear, easy to spot instructions for how to recycle packaging components. It also creates opportunities to avoid coatings and inks that may affect the recyclability or corrugate or paperboard.

While product protection is a crucial consideration for e-commerce packaging, it is also important to avoid wasteful overpackaging that negatively impacts sustainability. Primary packaging that is robust enough to survive the e-commerce distribution environment eliminates the need for secondary packaging, improving sustainability and helping to keep costs down.

Consumer Experience

Because online shoppers are making a purchase before they physically see or handle the product, brands must think differently about how consumers will experience their product and its packaging. While shelf appeal is not a central consideration for e-commerce packaging, there are still opportunities to create a memorable experience for the consumer when they receive the product. The first impression a product and its packaging make on the consumer can influence future purchasing behavior and increase the likelihood consumers will talk about the product with their friends, family and online social networks.

Packaging elements that add to the impression the product is a high-end, luxury item enhance the consumer experience. Internal packaging components such as bamboo trays can add to this perception. There are opportunities for branding on all packaging elements, including the box or pouch, internal components and even shipping labels. Consistent branding can make a strong impact on the consumer and add to the perception that they purchased a premium product.

E-commerce packaging design is a balance of many factors, and its growing importance means thoughtful design is crucial to a brands success in this retail channel. Unique design for products sold through e-commerce provides many opportunities for brands to optimize their packaging, especially for brands that do a large portion of their sales online. Adept’s packaging design experts have experience designing packaging optimized for e-commerce. If you’d like to discuss ways to tailor your packaging for e-commerce distribution, get in touch.