A complete guide to ecommerce packaging

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As the first physical touchpoint a customer has with your brand, ecommerce packaging plays a key role when it comes to first impressions and encouraging repeat sales. 

Presentation – from the container to the chosen infill – is paramount to the creation of a stellar unboxing experience. Besides which, selecting the right ecommerce packaging is key to protect your products during transit and keeping business costs down.

So, how do you decide which ecommerce packaging to use? What’s the best type of container? Which infill is most appropriate? Is it important to consider sustainability?

In this guide, we shine a spotlight on ecommerce packaging so that you can streamline your order management process and create an unforgettable customer experience. 

Why is ecommerce packaging important?

Have you ever received a miniscule item in a comically over-sized box? Or had a package arrive on your doorstep that had been bruised, battered and clearly seen better days?

While we can laugh at these experiences, they do disrupt the unboxing experience of new products and may create negative emotions and feelings towards your brand.

What’s more, we’ve become so accustomed to items arriving in plain cardboard boxes that many online sellers overlook the opportunity that ecommerce packaging presents them.

Here’s the thing.

Successful, well thought out ecommerce packaging can significantly boost your bottom line.

For starters, the use of protective and sturdy packing materials can minimize both the volume and cost of returns, as well as build trust and foster customer loyalty.

On top of this, you can increase your brand health tenfold by using branded ecommerce packaging in order to create a unique unboxing experience for your customers.

In essence, your ecommerce packaging needs to fulfill basic functions (such as product protection, cost-effective shipment and safe delivery) but there are also a number of additional benefits that can be leveraged when you know how.

Types of ecommerce packaging

Most online businesses will package orders in cardboard boxes – it’s cost-effective and helps to protect your products during transit to the delivery destination.

But what do you need to know about the differences in cardboard boxes?

Rigid boxes

Rigid boxes (also known as set-up boxes) are fairly sturdy and unlikely to collapse, making them a good choice for high-end products where perceived value is important.

Another use case scenario is to protect a heavy item that may be in need of extra support.

Corrugated boxes

Corrugated boxes (also known as corrugated board boxes, fiberboard boxes or combined board boxes) are typical brown cardboard boxes used to pack orders or move belongings.

Such a material contains three layers. The two outer layers are flat, while there is a wavy or fluted layer sandwiched between them. This middle layer is where the strength lies.

Corrugated boxes are most commonly used as shipping boxes.

Double wall boxes

Similar to corrugated boxes, double wall boxes are made with double layered corrugated walls in order to ensure that no products ever fall from the bottom or tear through.

Double wall boxes are one of the most secure types of ecommerce packaging available to online sellers. In fact, they’re also preferred by couriers due to their durability and resilience. 

What’s more, due to their increased rigidity, double wall boxes are ideal for storage. 


Another packaging method that helps protect fragile products (e.g. electronics) from any damage is known as overboxing. 

Although a single shipping box or the manufacturer’s original packaging is fine in some cases, there are many different situations where it may not be suitable.

For example, single boxes are generally not designed to endure the whole shipping and delivery process. Elements such as sorting impact, road impact and other handling situations can weaken the structure of the box and create tears or break it entirely.

Types of infill

Infill is the materials that are used to fill empty space in boxes to protect products during transit and delivery. As with anything, there are many different varieties to choose from. 

Here are a few worth mentioning: 

Kraft paper

Kraft paper is paper (or paperboard) that is crumpled up and used to fill spaces within cardboard boxes in order to keep product movement to a minimum. 

The material gets its name from the Kraft process in which it is made, where it is produced from chemical pulp.

Some of the benefits include the fact that Kraft paper tends to be inexpensive and is easy to obtain, making it a popular choice for ecommerce businesses. 

On top of this, Kraft paper doesn’t take up much space in a warehouse and can also be recycled to help you minimize waste. 

However, due to the nature of the material, using it in packaging can become quite inconsistent. Your employees will have different techniques and will require training – increasing business costs.

Air pillows (air-based void fill)

Air pillows are those small inflated pockets of air that you sometimes find within the packaging of an order you placed online. They are usually made from plastic polyethylene bags that are then inflated by a machine.

Such an infill is a great way to suspend a product within the package, cushion it and protect it during transit. It’s lightweight – so you don’t need to panic about increased shipping costs – and it saves on storage space as it’s stored uninflated.

As with Kraft paper, there are recycled option available and it’s also relatively clean to keep within your warehouse, unlike infill materials such as packing peanuts or shredded paper.

That said, air pillows require expensive machinery in order to inflate the pockets with air and they take up a substantially large amount of room within a package. The risk here is that you may end up using larger shipping boxes.

As air expands in hot temperatures or heated areas, this infill may not be appropriate when shipping packages to countries with a hot climate.

And, despite air pillows being recyclable, it can be difficult to do so as it can only be disposed of at specific drop-off points and most are made from non-biodegradable polyethylene – lasting for a minimum of 500 years to forever. 

Packing peanuts

Packing peanuts, mostly made out of polystyrene, are another common type of infill used by ecommerce businesses to protect products from damage.

However, it has recently emerged that polystyrene has a high risk for being carcinogenic, with many countries and cities around the world banning the use of the material. 

While it is possible to get environmentally-friendly packing peanuts made from corn starch or recycled paper, these options are more expensive and can be heavier, which may increase shipping costs. 

The advantages of packing peanuts include:

  • Fills space in boxes quickly
  • Offers basic protection
  • Cost-effective 
  • Reusable (although rarely are reused)

On the other hand, packing peanuts require a large storage space, greener options are more expensive, and polystyrene isn’t recyclable. 

What’s more, the infill is not fit for fragile products and not particularly sustainable when it comes to shipping and delivery. Customers may also find it annoying when opening packages as it has a tendency to go everywhere. 

Bubble wrap (foam roll/wrap)

Bubble wrap is one of the most used types of infill for a variety of reasons.

It’s lightweight, flexible and provides adequate protection for even the most fragile and breakable of items – making it an all-round excellent choice.

That’s not all though.

Bubble wrap is also a low cost packaging option and it’s pretty versatile, meaning it can be used for interleaving, wrapping and cushioning. 

On the other hand, there aren’t (unfortunately) any main recyclable options available and big rolls of the material may take up room in your warehouses. 

Shredded cardboard

As you may have guessed, shredded cardboard is made up of long strips of paper that are then sprinkled within a box to provide decoration and bridge space within the package.

It exists in a large variety of colors and is recyclable; however, it does take up a large amount of storage space and it may be expensive and unsustainable to ship due to the space that it takes up.

In addition to this, as shredded cardboard adds weight to a package, you may run the risk of increased shipping costs depending on how much you use.

ecommerce packaging and the need for sustainability

As of early 2019, the need for sustainability in all areas of ecommerce has risen in terms of importance. Customers everywhere are becoming more environmentally aware and legislation is increasingly being put in place to meet sustainability goals.

In fact, 81% of shoppers believe that companies should invest more of their resources to protect and improve the environment, with more than two thirds willing to pay more. 

So, how can you reduce your carbon footprint when it comes to ecommerce packaging?

Use less packaging

At the risk of sounding obvious, look at what packaging you can afford to lose. 

The less resources you use, the less space deliveries take up during transit and the less burden there is for your customer, as he or she won’t need to dispose of as much.

Avoid using mixed materials

Although mixed materials (e.g. two types of plastic or paper and plastic fused together) can be an effective way of adding protection to packages, they aren’t the greenest of solutions.

In general, mixed materials aren’t recyclable as the layers cannot be separated.

Instead, look towards using recycled materials from the get-go. The longer you can keep materials in use, the better for your business and for the environment.

If you can, choose materials that can be recycled by the curb side, so that you reduce the steps your customers will have to take to dispose correctly of your packaging.

Share disposal and recycling best practices with your customers

Make the lives of your customers easier by sharing what materials they can and cannot recycle. With recycling rules changing from city to city, going the extra mile is more likely to encourage your customers to do so as well.

Alternatively, you could go one step further than this and include a link or QR code to a section on your website that breaks down the disposal details for each packaging piece.

Here, you could also share ideas for reuse of your packaging materials to extend the lifecycle of these items and to build better customer loyalty. 

Try to plan ahead to avoid air freight

While air freight may be more convenient, it creates a huge carbon footprint.

In fact, air freight shipments can emit up to 47 times more emissions than sea freight.

To minimize your carbon footprint and make use of sea freight, you’ll need to:

  • Plan ahead and prepare accordingly
  • Check your product lead times
  • Send the final design days before the last order for standard delivery

You may also want to consider using local manufacturing partners.

After all, the closer your packaging manufacturer is to your warehouse(s) the less harm and destruction you cause to the environment.

At the same time, do your research and select manufacturers and suppliers with sustainable practices in place. You’ll find many factories have different green policies, such as minimizing electricity, water use or optimizing machines.

The key here is to choose partners that value transparency and doing the right thing.

Assess any over-packaging within your supply chain

There are dozens of touchpoints within your supply chain for your products and packaging.

In each of these stages, materials and products may be bagged or bundled several times over before arriving at your warehouse(s). This over-packaging is mostly used to keep your items in saleable condition, organised and safe.

In most cases, however, there are opportunities to minimize this excessive waste without causing any negative impact to your stock. 

The best way to deepen your knowledge about what you can do is to talk directly to your manufacturers to identify areas for improvement and reduce unnecessary materials.

Branded ecommerce packaging

Did you know that 70% of customers form impressions on brands based only on packaging?

And that 55% say they’ll return to an online store if an order comes in branded packaging? 

Nowadays, ecommerce packaging is considered to be a powerful brand element; one that can be used to add value, please the customer and modulate their behavior.

In fact, going the extra mile with branding and personalization shows to your customers that you care about them and helps to fuels a positive unboxing experience. Just look at the huge growth in unboxing videos uploaded onto YouTube each day. 

What’s more, not only are 52% of shoppers happy to pay more for products if they approve of the packaging but 30% businesses also report an increase in revenue when improving it. 

That’s not all though.

Customized ecommerce packaging is a great way to stand out from your competition and can be used as a brand differentiator.

You can position your business with a point-of-difference to determine where you sit in the market (e.g. luxury label or eco-friendly alternative).

Perfect your ecommerce packaging to boost your growth

When all is said and done, the role that your ecommerce packaging plays is an important one. Think about it. It’s the first physical interaction that a customer has with your brand.

A positive unboxing experience creates positive feelings and emotions towards your business. Not only does this elevate your brand’s reputation and overall brand health, but it can also create loyalty that leads to better retention rates and repeat sales.