Nothing underscores the intensity of the marketer’s competitive landscape like the shelves in a supermarket.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, between 1975 and 2008, the number of products in the average supermarket soared from 8,948 to just short of 47,000.

Today, it is not unusual for a supermarket to carry 50,000 SKUs. The size of the supermarket is one factor. But so are brand extensions and new product introductions, notably in the organic categories.

On the brick and mortar battleground, the high-stakes role of packaging continues to grow. The demands placed on packaging to differentiate the product, communicate benefits, justify pricing, and move the product off the shelf are increasingly complex and critical.

“Packages are a more believable source of product claims than advertisements, an effect driven by perceived proximity,” says Freeman Wu, assistant professor of marketing at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University.

“Consumers perceive packages, and by extension, the claims they offer, as physically closer to the product than ads and their claims. This greater claim-to-product proximity in turn makes the claim seem more verifiable and more credible, which ultimately decreases inferences of manipulative intent and increases purchase likelihood. Where you make product claims matters.”

Forecasting Package Performance

The high stakes of package performance and the need for packaging to perform means marketers are grappling with ways to predict on-shelf pack performance. The evaluation of package design before a product hits the shelf plays an increasingly useful role in the process.

“We know that marketers need to make packaging decisions at accelerated speeds,” says Scott Brill, VP at PRS IN VIVO, a packaging research firm.

“In forecasting pack performance, it is critical to place the packaging in the realistic context and observe how shopping behavior might change, as well as understand the immediate takeaways.”

The Role Of Packaging In Impulse Buying

It is not unusual for more than half the items a supermarket shopper takes home to be impulse buys.

“The concept of impulse purchasing is alive and well,” says Brill.

“For the average shopper, the actual shopping basket at checkout includes significantly more SKUs than the incoming grocery list would otherwise dictate. Shoppers, through packaging and point-of-sale-merchandising, can be convinced that another product is intriguing or meets an unmet need.”

What role does the actual packaging play in the shopper’s decision to make an impulse buy?

“Packaging is very relevant to the impulse shopping dynamic,” says Brill. “Impulse shopping is about creating breakthrough and standing out within that context, while immediately and intuitively conveying critical decision factors.

“In our research, we have seen that selections at the shelf, whether at check-out, in a convenience store or even in the aisle, are made in under a few seconds. As such, packaging needs to address all consumer requirements within that short period of time in order to close the sale – especially for an unplanned purchase.”

Optimizing The Package For Both Online And Offline Performance

The appeal of the package can’t be limited to a crowded shelf.

“Firms are increasingly leveraging the design and aesthetics of their packaging to encourage consumers to create more earned media on their behalf,” says Wu. “Coca-Cola pulled this off beautifully several years ago when they launched the Share a Coke campaign, which resulted in a ton of free social media attention for the brand.

“Even their Diet Coke products recently received a new makeover, supposedly designed to make the packaging more Instagram-friendly.”

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