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To Package or Not to Package?

Certain products are often displayed both with and without packaging. This decision is usually arbitrary. However, for naturally sourced products, packaging can hurt sales by acting as a perceptual barrier to the product’s naturalness. To avoid loss of buyer interest, manufacturers and retailers can sell without packaging where feasible. Other options are using sustainable packaging materials or highlighting the product’s psychological or physical link to nature.

If you walk into any organised retail store (e.g., Reliance Fresh, Star Market, More), you will find vegetables, fruits, and staples like rice or sugar stacked in bins as well as packed in

plastic bags. The decision to sell products with or without packaging seems arbitrary, which is a risky move for manufacturers and retailers due to the critical role of packaging in pushing sales. A study involving six controlled experiments and an Instagram study, therefore, tries to answer the question: When should retailers sell products with packaging and when should they sell products without packaging?

The study found that packaging can deter customers from buying products perceived as “natural”. This behaviour applies to food (e.g., cakes, pulses) as well as non-food products

that are natural in source (e.g., woollens, coir products). The packaging acts as a symbolic barrier between the product and nature, decreasing its perceived naturalness. The apparent distance from its natural source reduces the product’s lucrativeness for buyers. The more opaque the packaging, the higher is the perceived distance.

This perceived gap becomes more pronounced when the signage or information on the packaging highlights the product’s connection to nature. For example, if apples are packed

in a cardboard box and the packaging (or signage) says “Fresh from the Swiss Alps”, then the buyer’s perception of the box as a barrier between the apples and their natural source gets heightened, making the buyer even less inclined to buy the apples.

This study has critical implications for manufacturers and retailers vis-à-vis the use of packaging. For non-natural products, there is no need for selling without packaging.

However, for naturally sourced products, they need to ensure that the packaging doesn’t become a barrier to favourable buyer responses. One option, in this case, is to display products without packaging. This tactic would apply only to products for which packaging isn’t essential, e.g., fruits and vegetables. For products that absolutely need packaging to be sold, there are other tactics that manufacturers and retailers can follow to reduce the distancing effect of packaging.

The first of these tactics is using sustainable packing materials such as jute packaging or corn plastic. Wherever feasible, products can be packed in sustainable materials, and the

sustainability of the packaging should be highlighted using marketing communications. For example, “This handmade soap is packaged in cotton fabric bags.” However, this tactic may not be feasible for all products due to the limitations of the packing materials.

A second tactic that manufacturers and retailers can use in such cases is regular packaging

but highlighting the product’s psychological connection to nature through signage or product information. For example, “This tea leaf is packaged at the Assam tea garden where it is grown.” A third tactic for such products is highlighting the physical connection to nature. For example, “This strawberry jam is made from fresh Mahabaleshwar strawberries.” In both these cases, it is helpful to either use transparent packaging to reduce the perceived distance or to use psychologically aligned packaging (e.g., a glass jar for jam or a wooden/cardboard box with foil inside for tea).

The findings are also critical for sustainability practices, which are becoming more prominent

in the light of global pollution and its impact. Packaging constitutes a significant proportion of garbage that goes into landfills and into the environment, causing irreparable damage to nature. Reduction and modification in packaging following the abovementioned tactics can lead to a win-win situation for customers, the environment and firms.

<To learn about the connection between implied motion on packaging and naturalness of products, click here>

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