E-Commerce packaging changed significantly over the last 25 years. Initially, consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies rarely shipped directly to the final consumer, this was the exception to the rule. Two separate sectors shipped via distinct distribution channels, the ship method was generally based on whether the customer was retail or mail order. The first major changes occurred in the mid-1990s. Several factors drove these changes, as it became apparent during this period that product protection requirements by sector were distinctly different as e-commerce volume increased.
Prior to e-commerce, the majority of retail companies shipped products via freight lines, palletized in full truckloads (FTL) or partial truckloads (LTL) palletized homogeneously, with similar products types. CPG companies, producing food, toiletries, electronics, books, etc., shipped in packaging designed to protect against static and dynamic loading focused on top to bottom compression, shock, vibration, and incline impact. Products were generally palletized, stretch wrapped, stored in warehouses, and stacked on racks until ready for loading onto 53 ft. trucks. Highway and rail were the dominant transit modes for these items to be transported via truck to retail, grocery, department stores, etc..
Companies or divisions dedicated to mail order catalog customers utilized a process of kitting orders packed according to the size, weight, and fragility of order items. Products sensitive to environmental factors such as; shock, temperature, or moisture were packed according to specified protection requirements. Overpack, add dunnage, unpack and repack, kitting was completed in distribution/fulfilment centers, dedicated to the catalog or mail order business. These manufacturers utilized small parcel shipment systems for the vast majority of their orders. These networks shipped mixed loads on trucks, airplanes, utilizing short distance delivery, and sorting via conveyors. This activity was commonly conducted in a facility in a location based on the geographic profile of the customer base, which enabled shipments to originate from regional centers. The regional centers were strategically located to service as much of the population as possible and generally deliver orders within 3 to 5 transit days by ground and air.
Volumes were very low as the inception of e-commerce. As e-commerce began to grow outside of the mail-order/catalog sector, the most expedient and cost-effective method for manufacturers to fulfill orders was to break open a pallet in the warehouse and ship the item in the same pack via a small parcel delivery (UPS, FedEx, DHL, USPS, etc.), instead of utilizing freight lines.
As volumes increased, customers began to receive and report damaged items. A significant portion of the damage seen was related to side impact, or crushed boxes from unanticipated heavy top loads. Initially, the perception was that shippers were abusing the packs during manual handling (these scenarios were woven into pop culture and portrayed in movies, for example; Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy Watch: The Cable Guy Deliver a Package). The distribution system of conveyors and mixed loaded trucks meant that packaging, designed with predetermined, uniform values for crush/compression and vibration, was not designed to withstand the handling methods and variance encountered in small parcel distribution systems.
Many companies during the early stages of e-commerce shipping collaborated with small parcel companies to leverage their experience. The results usually resulted in a redesign of the existing packaging to withstand both types of environments or development of a second pack, designed specifically for small parcel shipment environments.
Small Parcel Delivery companies noticed a shift in the customer base, began to monitor damage from these types of shipments, and actively reached out to those customers to educate and encourage modifications to their protective designs when shipping via small parcel. More companies designed packages specifically for small parcel environments to withstand side impacts from conveyor travel and provide higher compression or stack strength, based on guidance from small parcel guidelines and qualified with laboratory testing.
These early adjustments were the precursors to the packaging advancements we see today in the world of e-commerce. The shift in volume precipitated the change from packaging designed strictly for palletized LTL shippers, to deliberately designed protective packaging, meeting the requirements of the small parcel shipment environment. Once the foundation of e-commerce packaging was in place, guidelines and standards were communicated and allowed for innovation sustainability, efficiency and new standards.
Today we see the current focus of e-commerce packaging on efficient sizing, sustainability, consumer friendly graphics, light weighting, and concentrated products.
Source: US Census Bureau https://www.census.gov/retail/mrts/www/data/pdf/ec_current.pdf