October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

What kind of impression do you make?

Retailing is as much about theater as it is about merchandise. But there is one area that many retailers overlook—the final impression.

Retailing is as much about theater as it is about merchandise. That’s true even among the discount chains that carefully cultivate the image they want customers to walk away with-high quality at low prices, for example, or no-frills stores that cut overhead and keep prices low. Online retailers didn’t take long to apply that approach to their web sites. E-retailers continually refine their sites, updating the look and navigation and adding features and functions that will appeal to their customers.

But there is one area that many retailers overlook-the final impression. Not that retailers have not understood that the final impression is important. But their focus has been on delivery, by under-promising and over-delivering-you’re told your package will arrive in four days and it gets there in two.

That’s OK as a first step, but in this competitive market, smart retailers will take it a step farther with excellent product presentation. That many online retailers are not paying attention to their packaging struck me when I received an item that I was planning to give as a gift. Three lovely etched glass bowls arrived wrapped in corrugated cardboard and stuffed with tissue paper. The packaging kept them safe, but was hardly the kind of box I’d want to give a gift in. They definitely looked like someone had plucked them off a warehouse shelf in their manufacturer’s packaging and put them into a shipping box. I was dismayed when I opened the box to realize that I now had to complete part two of my gift-giving mission: Find a suitable gift box. That, unfortunately, meant a trip to a store, the avoidance of which was one of the principal reasons I shopped online to begin with.

I have had similar reactions when I’ve received packages way out of proportion to their contents. While it’s true that good things often come in small packages, and the recipient should focus on the package inside, it’s also true that the shipping box creates expectations. And when the size of the contents is out of proportion to the size of the package, it can create at least humor at the expense of the retailer if not disappointment on the part of the recipient. We recently received in our office a box that measured about a foot high by 10 inches wide by 5 inches deep. Several in the office thought it quite humorous when the lucky recipient opened the box and dug through all the packaging to find four chocolates inside. On top of that, the four were packaged in a box that appeared to contain two layers. Alas, the chocolates were very tasty and so there was further disappointment to find no second layer.

It seems that efficiency is driving the pick, pack and ship operation (see Paul Demery’s story on p. 66), as is the desire to limit the amount of different kinds of packaging material that must be kept on hand. But appearance and the impression a customer receives should not be relegated to the second tier of considerations. Online retailers now have the perfect opportunity to re-think their packaging strategies. With a new rate structure from the U.S. Postal Service based on product dimensions as well as weight (Internet Retailer, September 2007, p. 70) retailers will have to redesign their shipping packages. That provides an excellent opportunity to redesign their product packages as well.

BTW – I have not bought again from the retailer who sold me the glass bowls. The chance that I may have to actually go to a store frightens me too much.


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