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Six Steps to Perfect Packaging for Global Trade

E-commerce entrepreneurs explain how they handle packaging issues.

September 13, 2013
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There's an old adage about the perfume industry that the scent costs less than the bottle it comes in. But you don't need to be hawking Chanel No.5 to know that packaging is a vital part of any consumer product. Whether it's protecting fragile contents in transit, making goods stand out on store shelves or working to enhance brand image, proper packaging can improve the bottom line.

A news website focused on the e-commerce industry, Alizila, tapped some seasoned e-commerce entrepreneurs to find out how they handle packaging issues for the products they sell. Here are their tips:

1. KNOW WHAT TO ASK FOR

When it comes to packaging, most products come ready to be displayed on the shelves of the big retail outlets. That's fine if your products are destined to be sold in store, but it's unlikely to meet the needs of online businesses that run on a click-and-ship, rather than bricks-and-mortar, model. "An online retailer needs packaging robust enough to get to the consumer without damage," says Paul Greenberg, CEO of Australia's National Online Retailers Association and a 10-year e-commerce veteran who co-founded DealsDirect.com.au. "It sounds obvious, but a lot of product for store shelf display comes in oddly shaped plastic clamshells, or with a window into the product. That's the opposite of what you want. Not only do you not need [packaging] to sell the product for you on the shelf, it's a severe impediment to smooth distribution."

E-tailers who don't want to waste time and money repacking and bubble wrapping products should ask their suppliers up front for appropriate packaging. "It took me about two years to find a colloquial term for what I wanted that Chinese suppliers understood," says Greenberg. The phrase he was looking for was mail-order packaging. "Mail order may have died with the Sears Roebuck catalogue of 1930, but it’s still a very relevant term to use in China when you need packaging for an online business," Greenberg says. Upon placing an order, clearly state that you want mail-order packaging, he suggests. If the manufacturer messes up and sends the goods in display packaging instead, many will be willing to correct the mistake by sending packing sleeves or offering a credit.

2. SOURCE ONLINE

Packaging is about more than just a six-sided shipper box. If you need a specialized display container or packaging designed from scratch, you’ll need to source it like you would any product.

One place to start is the packaging and printing portal at global B2B trading website Alibaba.com. Ric Kostick, co-founder of San Francisco-based 100% Pure, used Alibaba to find custom containers for his company's line of natural cosmetics after failing to locate an American source. "Domestically you can't get any of the packaging because in the U.S. the factories just do not exist," Kostick says. "So when I found Alibaba I was very excited. You pretty much type what you want into the search bar and you have a vast selection of factories you can chat with and ask specific questions."

100% Pure uses both standard packaging designs picked from a catalog and unique, custom-made containers, yet Kostick has never once visited a factory. "For our aluminium compacts we sent drawings of what we wanted and pictures of similar items, and they were able to do a production sample that imitated our designs," says Kostick. "There was a little bit of back and forth to get the shape and the engineering right — the minor details that matter so much once it's in the consumer's hands — but it turned out really beautiful."

3. GO GREEN

Recycled and environmentally friendly packaging can also be sourced online, something that is integral to the brand image of 100% Pure. "We use recycled paper, aluminium from recycled soda cans, soy ink on our labels and all the plastic we use has been recycled," says Kostick, who has found verifying the supplier's eco-credentials fairly straightforward. "Before Alibaba you had to go through a broker, which was a lot more expensive. Now you can see verified videos and photos to check a factory's credibility and if you want to verify if something is recycled they usually have third party certificates available."

4. NEGOTIATE ON QUANTITY

China's packaging factories are geared up to handle massive orders, but if your requirements are more modest don't let the published minimum order quantities put you off. "A lot of factories are negotiable. If you can get them to see that you're testing the market, and if things go well you can give them larger orders in the future they'll work with you," says Kostick. "The key is to tell them you will pay more per unit for a smaller quantity."

Greenberg has seen a change as China becomes not only the world's factory, but the world's leading wholesaler, too. "Chinese suppliers are quick to adapt and are responding to retailers who prefer to order small quantities more often, rather than large orders infrequently," says Greenberg. "In places like Yiwu, outside of Shanghai, you can order in small lots of 20 to 50 units, which was unheard of a decade ago."

5. HAVE A PLAN B

When choosing a packaging partner, Kostick's tactic is to contact lots of suppliers to assess their capabilities and enquire about pricing and minimum order quantities (MOQs), then ask a shortlist of suppliers to send production samples. He chooses a factory based on the highest quality sample but also builds relationships with additional suppliers. "You never want to be stuck with just one supplier. If something happens to them you're in a bind. So we have a supplier for our plastic tubes, another for our paper compacts, another for labels, and sometimes we have a backup supplier. If they increase the price unreasonably on you, or the relationship breaks down a little bit, you want to have other suppliers ready."

6. D.I.Y. DESIGN

When it comes to design, there's no place like home. "I'm an advocate of doing as much as you can offshore, but with any quality brand the design work is still done onshore," says Greenberg, who notes something is often lost in translation between eastern and western design languages — not to mention concerns about spelling mistakes and legal compliance with labeling of goods. At 100% Pure, an in-house graphic designer creates artwork to match parameters supplied by the factory. "So the only problems we've had with spelling were our own fault." says Kostick.

Good on-pack design is about more than just dodging 'Chinglish' embarrassments, however. Even if your products are sold online rather than in stores, pretty packaging can pay dividends. "Mail order packaging doesn't have to be a brown box. A lot of online retailers now recognize that it's an important part of their branding," says Greenberg. "Receiving a parcel is the climax of an end-to-end customer experience. It seems a pity to let them down at the last moment with a package that is tired or damaged. It's not a good look."

This article originally appeared on Alizila.com.

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