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When Did Shipping Boxes Get Pretty?

In the age of unboxing, the box matters

Image Source/Getty

You've been expecting me." An online order from Reformation has arrived, the banal cardboard box announcing itself with four confident words in type as tall as an iPhone. The tape holding a J.Crew shipment closed reads like a news ticker: "Take me, I'm yours. Think inside the box. So happy I'm home." The interior flap of a Glossier delivery affirms "Everyone says they're ‘low maintenance' (it's ok, neither are we)."

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Stylized shipping boxes are designed to stand out, while ironically becoming the new norm. Aritzia, Birchbox, Matchesfashion, Urban Outfitters, and countless more have equally trumpeting e-comm deliveries, with custom colored boxes, oversized brand logos, and interior surprises (if you look closely, there is a tiny swimmer at the bottom of Warby Parker's pool-inspired Home Try-On box). Net-a-Porter's black box, tied with a grosgrain ribbon, is so indicative of the luxe goods inside that it offers a downgraded option at checkout, a discreet brown box that doesn't exclaim "Miu Miu platforms enclosed!" Even Amazon has a signature black tape distinguishing its shipments.

This is gonna be great #warbyhometryon #vsco #vscostl #vscocam

A photo posted by carlytressner (@carlytressner) on

Voicey cardboard boxes, custom-color bubble wrap, and printed packing tape are the online answer to the status-symbol shopping bag, elevated in-store gift wrapping, and iconic product boxes à la Hermès (dating back to the 1950s) and Tiffany & Co. (1837). As much as ever before, customers feel good, affirmed, and proud of a purchase that comes in a vessel that feels special. Plus, Instagram.

"We have almost 15,000 posts using our Home Try-On specific hashtag on Instagram," Erin Collins, Warby Parker's Director of Consumer Insights, writes by e-mail. In the four weeks since, that number has only grown. "We receive great customer photos of the outside of their box on their doorstep," Collins reports. "[The box] says ‘Good things await you,' so I think people get immediately excited when they see it has arrived."

In its 2015 e-commerce packaging analysis, Dotcom Distribution found that 39% of online shoppers shared a product image or a video on social media. "We know our community is super active on social media and will share images once they receive their products," says Glossier head of design, Adriana Deleo. "We want every detail of the unboxing experience to be exciting, surprising — and photogenic." By way of pink bubble wrap, Glossier is handing its customers the tools to create an on-brand background for aspirational Instagrams and product review vlogs.

Sitting squarely (or rectangularly) in a customer's bedroom or on their desk at work, with each box an opportunity arises to immerse a shopper in the brand's world, the same way a store environment or a website's design does. The stakes are even higher, and the reward even greater, for an online-only company like Glossier, where the shipping box is a customer's first physical contact with the brand. Before a shopper can get to the actual thing they paid for — and likely have never seen in the flesh — they'll work through tape, tissue, bubble wrap, an itemized receipt, and protective sleeves. These prosaic necessities ensure the purchase arrives in fine condition, but they can also be a vehicle for the brand to express its identity.

Dreams do come true. #glossier #intothegloss

A photo posted by Amy Elizabeth (@amyelizaa) on

"We like to take advantage of the practicalities of shipping," Deleo says. "We were inspired by manufacturing constraints as well as the traditional language of shipping and packing materials." Helen Steed, Glossier's Creative Director, explains that each element has been carefully considered, "from the black and white packing tape with messages like ‘have a nice day' and ‘we're all snowflakes,' to the colors and messages inside the corrugated shippers; even the very practical, but totally re-usable pink pouches." Those practical pouches are so popular, the brand sells them a la carte. "Every piece of the brand that a customer touches should feel like a true Glossier experience," says Steed."We were inspired by manufacturing constraints as well as the traditional language of shipping and packing materials.

This first impression is so important that Warby Parker held video chats with new customers as they opened their first Home Try-On box. "We watched how they opened it, which information they were inclined to read or skip, and how they interacted with the box and frames overall," Collins says of the experiment, which did ultimately lead to design changes. "For example, we noticed that printing content on the inside flap of the box is a really good way to grab people's attention and get a message across."

Net-a-Porter is largely credited with so-called premium packaging for the e-comm age. Founder Natalie Massenet wanted to sell high-end fashion brands on — gasp — the tawdry internet, which is a thing that just didn't exist in when the site was launched in 1999 (you still can't buy a Chanel bag online; not a new one, anyway). If you take the lush in-store experience out of a designer buy, the delivery of that item better feel like Christmas times 1,000. Massenet named packaging an important part of Net-a-Porter's positioning as a luxury brand in its own right, telling Business of Fashion "It lifts the online experience to joyful levels."

With packaging-is-joy front of mind, Glossier made the stuff a primary ingredient in the brand's late-2014 launch. "[Our] design and operations teams worked relentlessly to source the right type of pink pouch, the right shade of pink, the right zip pull, et cetera," Steed recalls. "They created four sizes of shipping boxes, each with different messages and colors inside; then surprise extras like sticker sheets, posters, and totes."

It works on us, too: that 2015 Dotcom Distribution study found 61% of online shoppers think pretty packaging makes a brand look "upscale," and 4 in 10 are more likely to recommend a product to a friend based solely on branded packaging.

Sitting in an apartment hallway or on a coworkers desk, cool-looking boxes can speak for themselves. "Customers tend to order to their office or school," Collins has observed, "which is great for us because it exposes even more people to the brand through our distinctive packaging."

"The details — all of them — are super important," Steed says. "We know from feedback that people notice and appreciate them, every last one."

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