How COVID-19 changed packaging forever
Edited by Mark A. Spaulding
A new White Paper from Chicago-based Mesirow Financial seeks to identify the COVID-19 pandemic-driven market shifts that have had the most direct effects on demand within the principal categories of consumer packaging. It also discusses the meaning of these changes for each category, emphasizing what producers of packaging need to know to stay ahead of the trends.
Unidentified by science before January 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has since transformed nearly every aspect of life: the ways we interact, work, travel, communicate – and above all, consume. The implications of the latter for producers of consumer-packaged goods (CPGs) are only now becoming fully clear.
Like every other sector of the US economy, the packaging industry suffered its share of setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the whole, however, packaging benefited strongly from changing patterns of consumption that emerged as the nation learned to cope with lockdowns and other restrictions that came with fighting the spread of the disease .
Rising demand for products in many categories drove innovations that increased variety, ease of use, and safety for consumers. Think, for example, of single-use packages in smaller sizes protected by seals and labels that assure product safety. Although it was somewhat overshadowed by other priorities, sustainability influenced the design and manufacture of packaging in important new ways. Throughout the pandemic, the explosion of ordering via e-commerce amplified the market for packaging of almost every type.
The chart above indicates that these trends have been transformative across the board, and are expected to remain so even as the pandemic recedes. But growth in some areas happened while other segments stagnated or declined. This points to the fact that in a post-COVID-19 landscape, consumers’ expectations and buying habits will be different from what they were before the pandemic upended their lives.
Consumers will, for example, insist even more strongly on value, safety, and hygiene in the products they buy, just as they did during the height of the outbreak. Their use of e-commerce, initially a matter of necessity, will become an everyday method of sourcing goods and services.
Here’s a summary of major packaging industry impacts in a post-COVID world:
- Surviving COVID-19 refocused most people’s attention on securing enough of the goods and supplies they would need to maintain an acceptable quality of life. That focus on the basics will remain in place after the pandemic is over, and the outlook for packaging will continue to be influenced by it.
- Although packaging sectors such as foodservice should recover rapidly, others – such as luxury products, travel, and hospitality – will need more time. Consumer purchasing could stay soft as business and employment take time to recover.
- The enormous surge in the use of e-commerce during the pandemic has turned the channel into the default shopping option for millions of consumers. With no definite end of the pandemic in sight, their reliance on e-commerce can only grow.
- The demand for hygiene transparency – assurance that the package will protect both the contents and the end-user of the contents from contamination of all kinds – will continue as an imperative for packaging producers after the pandemic recedes.
- Sustainability has lost none of its force as a consumer expectation. Down the road, packaging producers must be sure of giving packages the environmental credentials that consumers clearly want them to have. Packaging manufacturers should assume that overseas initiatives for sustainability will gain traction, in one way or another, in their domestic markets.
- Digital printing, with its automation, variable output and increasing ability to handle heavier stocks in longer runs, will become a preferred packaging solution for the post-COVID world.
- Consumers’ delight in the “unboxing experience” of e-commerce will remain even as they return to brick-and-mortar retailing.
1. “How the packaging industry can navigate the coronavirus pandemic,” McKinsey & Company (April 2020)
Download the White Paper here: