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Online shopping may boost the fortunes of packaging

Gloomy Christmas sales forecasts for retailers may not be bad news for all

While December may be just a receding memory, plenty of UK retailers are probably still counting the cost. For some it may ultimately prove an expense too high to support. But what can be gleaned from the mixed bag of returns that largely made the festive season anything but joyous on the High Street?

It would be easy to blame poor sales on high interest rates, low consumer confidence and an increasingly savvy eye for a bargain. Conversely, perhaps we should view last Christmas as a significant milestone along the route towards retail evolution. Because the problem isn’t about going shopping, apparently now the UK’s number one leisure pursuit; it’s more probably the attendant schlepping at a weekend.

Online shopping increased by 33.3% during 2004 to net over £6.4bn. No queuing, no trying to park. Just a little time in front of the screen.

Hold on to that thought, and then consider the latent possibilities of another contemporary technology, the RFID chip. Its initial attraction might be as a better stock control mechanism, but it can also directly engage the consumer in conversation as a point of sale promotion embedded within the point of purchase.

In future, the weekly supermarket trip could be a family day out. Why traipse down the aisles when you can interrogate the shelves via hand-held transmitter over a latte? And once there, why not watch a movie, the sports channel or read the newspapers? Meanwhile, your shopping is packed for home delivery, all part of the service of shopping online but in-store.

How would packaging fit into such a scenario? Self-evidently with less focus on exterior graphics, and correspondingly more on life-cycle functionality. The implications are profound – not least in packaging having to become far more oriented towards gaining repeat sales rather than eliciting impulse purchasing decisions.

Hitherto, the twin drivers giving the multiples competitive edge have been convenience and price. Extending the duration of the store visit and excelling in service could well represent the logical, profitable next steps.

Packaging was the initial booster that propelled the multiples into prominence. Hitherto, its reward has been to become commoditised but, in this scenario, it could enjoy a commercial renaissance.