Paper or Plastic?

Written by Bill Tanzer


No one walks into a convenience store expecting a candy bar to be placed in an engraved Euro tote with corded top handles. Instead, customers pretty much expect to take home that chocolate in a thin plastic bag. The cost of anything more would drive up the price of a simple snack. That would enrage possibly anyone walking in. Shop in an upscale, organic grocery store and receive a sheer plastic bag at purchase? That’s an instant turn off. Where are the brown paper bags? Where is the quality? Retailers catering specifically to eco-friendly consumers will alienate the client base. Would a new customer want to return to such a store again?

The right material makes all the difference. Showing that you know the customer is by showing you care about his or her values. Also, the psychology behind packaging cannot be understated. How customers see the packaging is how they see your product.

Try this. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, conducted an experiment in the cafeteria of MIT. Students were served a free cup of coffee after answering a few quick questions. Along with the usual condiments, (milk, half-and-half, sugar), several unusual condiments were also on display. No one would ever associate paprika and cloves with coffee, yet there they sat. On some days, all of the condiments were presented on fancy serving trays. On other days, the same condiments were haphazardly stacked in a bunch of Styrofoam cups.

No student ever chose those oddball ingredients to pour in their coffee. Not surprising, since who enjoys a little paprika with their coffee? However, when asked how much they enjoyed the brew, students were much more positive about the taste…..on days when odd condiments were placed on upscale trays. Guess what happened on days when weird condiments were placed in Styrofoam cups, thrown in like an afterthought? Students were less enthusiastic about the coffee and even less interested in recommending the drink to their friends. Even though no one poured the paprika!

Lesson? Packaging is not just important in terms of convenience for the retail outlet, or the products sold, but how customers see those products, and what these customers come to expect.

In 2008, Barneys New York fashion retailer won a design award for its Dallas store. Barneys is well known for being a premium option. So how does the store present its clothes? As if the sales floor was an art gallery and every item was a curated piece. Another example: Williams-Sonoma consistently has its stores strategically designed and lit as if visitors are not in a store but in a “dream home.” Would it make sense to send customers away with their high-end kitchen purchases without a shopping bag? Of course not. The store offers large reusable totes with matching handles, its logo prominently displayed.

Some products are meant to be showcased. What kind of impression does it make when bagged inappropriately? That the item is next to worthless? Maybe some consumers won’t notice or care, but are you willing to take that chance?

March 19, 2011

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