Shifting consumer shopping habits during the COVID-19 pandemic drove changes all up and down the supply chain — including in the way goods are packaged.
Operations managers had to rethink how their packaging works in environments where workers must stay at least six feet apart, said Laura Clark, vice president of global strategy and business development at Sealed Air.
Warehouse and fulfillment center operators also had to cope with labor scarcity, which has led to much more automation.
"COVID has pulled the future forward," Clark said. In fact, she believes COVID-19 has pushed automation in packaging up by three to five years.
The pandemic-accelerated shift to e-commerce has also driven changes in packaging size, consumer perception of packaging and waste, and design for more return-friendly packaging. The shift may finally get rid of the need to encase every item in impossible-to-open plastic.
Packaging: Small but mighty
The pandemic pushed consumers toward e-commerce, which drove retailers to rethink how they got product into customers' hands. For a lot of retailers, that meant adding ship from store, essentially turning brick-and-mortar stores into fulfillment centers, albeit ones that sent smaller packages.
"We had a number of different smaller retailers further solidifying their omnichannel strategies and shifting to a distribution strategy of shipping out of store," said Clark. For Sealed Air, that meant a higher demand for smaller packaging and also smaller packaging equipment to fit into backrooms of stores not necessarily designed as fulfillment centers.