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2021 E-Commerce Packaging Predictions

Posted 14 Jul 2021 by Justine Hanlon, Market Manager, Flexible Packaging

2020 has been a year of change, and this is especially true for the e-commerce packaging landscape. Businesses have had to adapt and rethink their go-to market strategies, while consumers have had more time to reflect on the impact packaging has on the environment. Groups like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have maintained the pressure for greener options and pushed for more transparency around recyclability and packaging waste.

Here, we’ll discuss the e-commerce landscape in 2020 and make five predictions for 2021.

Prediction: Corrugated will continue to be the top packaging material choice, but there will be an increase in alternative materials.

According to Smithers, corrugated board holds its position as the most utilized e-commerce packaging material with 81% of the overall market share. Corrugated manufacturers shouldn’t become complacent, as there is growing demand for alternative packaging formats including flexible packaging, padded mailers, and paper mailers. These alternative materials have a small percentage of market share but are gaining traction for their specific end uses.

Flexible packaging is a growing option for e-commerce because it offers added protection and durability to help resist breakage, prevent spills, and keep multiple products together. In some product categories, flexible packaging can protect products during shipping without an overbox: a corrugated box that holds another similar corrugated box within to withstand the elements during handling. This reduction in additional packaging can result in a reduction in environmental footprint. For example, in a streamlined life cycle comparison between shoes delivered with a flexible mailer or with an overbox, the outer box format resulted in a higher environmental impact for fossil fuel consumption (+14.2%) and greenhouse gas emissions (+65.6%). Another advantage of flexible formats is the reduced dimensional weight. Billable weight is determined by whichever value is greater, actual or dimensional weight, and shipping costs can be lower for a package that is space-efficient.

Convenience stores often refer to the local brick-and-mortar retailer in one’s neighborhood. Convenience stores often stock, at a markup, everyday basics from bread to milk to toilet paper. Post-COVID-19, the increased reliance on e-commerce has the potential to transform online shopping into the convenience store of the future.

Customers shopping at a convenience store expect simplicity, product availability, and convenience. Before COVID-19, a customer’s need for convenience was driven by a lack of time for shopping in person and therefore made online shopping an attractive and easy solution. As COVID-19 behaviors permanently shift online buying preferences, consumer packaged goods (CPGs) and brand owners will scramble to rethink how to connect with seasoned home-bound shoppers and those moving online for the first time.

Anticipating impulse purchases and fulfilling orders quickly is the key to connecting with this largely untapped market. Unilever has partnered with an array of delivery services to deliver its Magnum ice cream bars, nearly on-demand. Online retailers will need to provide consumers with a diverse set of delivery options in order to tap into that impulse market. In March, when there was an unexpected surge of consumer purchasing, everyone understood that delays and out-of-stocks were an unfortunate fact of increased online shopping. In 2021, online shopping will be the new standard and customer expectations for service, supply, and delivery will become far more stringent – and much less forgiving.

Prediction: Sustainability is still top of mind, but consumers have additional expectations.

Despite the obstacles, many CPGs and brands released or made commitments to be more sustainable in 2020.

Launching its first-ever e-commerce ready-to-ship pack, Nivea partnered with Amazon India to create a 100% recyclable package with absolutely no plastic, using minimal material for an easy and hassle-free experience. Catering to both Amazon and its consumers, this minimal packaging is 10%-15% lighter in weight as it comes straight from the brand house, focusing on minimum damage and defect instances. No extra activity is required from Amazon, like adding the Amazon overbox and making it a complete ready-to-ship package, and the consumer finds it easier and quicker to open with a clear conscience by reducing their plastic consumption.

Consumers still expect a product to arrive undamaged, but also expect a great unboxing experience, as well as an environmentally friendly way to dispose of their packaging waste.

Prediction: Packaging safety needs to work with packaging sustainability.

H.B. Fuller conducted a custom consumer survey of 600 Millennials and Gen Z consumers in Germany, France and the UK. When asked to rank the prioritization of sustainable packaging initiatives for food and beverage brands, “reducing excess packaging” was consistently ranked as their number one or two priority.

It's not surprising that many consumers consider packaging waste an important environment issue and sustainability of paper-based packaging is more important to them today than it was five years ago. The pandemic has only accelerated the importance and added other packaging concerns. A recent study by G&S Business Communications found that more than two-thirds of consumers worry about contracting COVID-19 from food packaging and more than 40% use household disinfectants to clean the products they buy. Designers need to continue to keep sustainability at the forefront of their next creation, but also recognize the enhanced need for packaging safety.

Prediction: Online grocery shopping will expand.

In early 2020, online grocery shopping was predicted to grow steadily but would not compete with brick-and-mortar retailers. Consumers were cautious of having fresh produce and other perishable goods, such as milk and yogurt, delivered. However, concerns about COVID-19 transmission accelerated the demand for online grocery shopping. Experts say new consumer purchasing habits have formed, and studies indicate that two out of three new online consumers will stick to their new way of buying after the pandemic.

More consumers are consistently using online grocery services to replace their regular brick-and-mortar shops, compared to usage in January 2020. This also demonstrates the two distinct online grocer users: those who frequently use online grocery services to replace their regular in-store shopping and those who occasionally use online grocery services for convenience.


It’s important for brands and retailers to stay focused on the individual needs and expectations of different consumer groups during this ongoing change. The e-commerce packaging landscape will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. If you have any questions, our e-commerce packaging experts can help you navigate this challenging market space.

H.B. Fuller Joins Amazon Packaging Support and Supplier (APASS) Network

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