Thinking Outside the Box for Packaging Online Orders and Returns

Shopping in the 21st century has moved out of box stores and into boxes. With so much ordered online, we're using more cardboard than ever before. Algorithms are now being applied to work out solutions with pretty fair success.
Ariella  Brown
Amazon packages of cardboard and plasticPhoto by Sarah Brown

We've come a long way

Shoppers today go about finding what they want very differently than shoppers did back in the last century. The contrast is particularly striking in the difference between shopping for things you wear. 

“Let your fingers do the walking” was the tagline for Bell Yellow Pages, as you can see in the 1970 vintage commercial below.


But all your fingers could do was find you the address or phone number. You still had to do a lot more to achieve your transaction, often with a visit to the place of business you found listed.

While catalog order options did exist, for the concept dates all the way back to the 1800s, mail order was inefficient. Even when toll-free 800 numbers came on the scene to encourage calling in your order, you still had to wait several days for delivery and pay the fee added on for the shipping charges. 

Consequently, catalog orders were reserved for things that were otherwise not available or accessible in your location. Your standard shopping always included an excursion that could take several hours.

Shopping meant carving out some time to travel to a store and walk among the displays to see what was in stock, locating the item you wanted in your size, trying it on, and then waiting for your turn with the cashier to pay for the item. Or, you could spend hours hunting for that particular thing only to leave empty-handed if you couldn’t find the right item or the right fit.

Some people still shop this way and then will complain that they cannot find the shoes they want in their size even after multiple trips to stores. As for the rest of us, though, we’d say, “Why waste time going from store to store only to have to wait on a line, when you can just go online with no waiting?” 

Online shopping offers the ultimate in convenience

Now we really do let our fingers do the walking as we take care of our shopping needs by hitting a few keys on the keyboard of our internet-enabled computers or even just swipe through the choices that we can summon on smartphones. There’s no need to go to the store, as we have the biggest store selections in the world literally at our fingertips.

Even those of us who have grown up with the notion of going to shoe stores for shoes to be sure they fit have now come to embrace the convenience of shopping for them online. By going on Zappos or Amazon (not that much difference now as Zappos shares the Amazon platform) we can check if the style and color we want is available in our size and even comparison shop to find it at the best price.

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The best price for online shopping must include free shipping both to our homes and for returns if we find they don’t fit as expected. 

No one wants to be stuck with shoes that don’t fit or a pillow that does not provide the fluffiness advertised. And there’s no way of judging those qualities just from seeing the item on a screen -- even if it does have reviews that might or might not reflect real consumer experiences.

Our convenience entails a steep price for the environment

The thing about all this ordering online and shipping (possibly both ways) is that it entails a great deal of packaging. Shoes are not just sent in their own shoe boxes but packed within another box, or perhaps a kind of plastic bag. 

While most people don’t pay that much attention to the packaging because they are dealing with only a few packages overall, for the seller, it adds up to a great deal of cardboard or plastic. That’s why Amazon applies high tech solutions to find the most efficient way to package things, balancing the need to protect items from damage with the goal of minimizing space and weight for greater economy in logistical arrangements.  

The advanced engineering behind achieving that ideal balance was the subject of a recent CNN article, Amazon's Incredible, Vanishing Cardboard Box. The goal, as it explains, is “to shrink, make lighter, and re-use all that extra packaging — and eventually, maybe, get rid of it altogether.”

The thing is, when we shopped by going to stores, we brought home our purchases in minimal packaging, usually just one thin bag for several different items. Because we were carrying our bags ourselves and carefully placing them in cars, we didn’t require a great deal of wrapping or boxing.

But when items are ordered over the internet and delivered individually to different, there is much greater demand for cardboard. In fact, the article reports, according to to Fastmarkets, we are using seven times as much cardboard as a result.

The incredible, shrinking package

There has not been that much impetus to reduce, reuse, and recycle with respect to packaging for internet orders. But with the rising concerns about sustainability as well the bottom-line improvements that result from reducing the weight and bulk of packaging, innovation for packaging is the new order of the day for major online sellers like Amazon. 

A  number of different techniques are employed toward achieving that goal. CNN quoted Quint Marini, who runs the UPS packaging lab that offers businesses guidelines on reducing their logistical expenses "Corrugated companies are trying to take the paper out of paperboard." 

Even space without weight adds to the cost of shipping because volume is factored into the cost. That is why even reducing air is an advantage, and that is not limited to the packaging but applied to the products, too.

If you order your pillows from Amazon, as I recently did, you may be surprised to discover that they are nearly flat upon arrival. The plastic seal around them keeps the air out, but once you open it, they will fluff up to what you expect in pillows.

The ideal package doesn’t exist -- literally

But the packing material is also an area of concern, as the paper used to produce the cardboard depends on cutting down trees. Accordingly, from both an environmental and economical perspective, no package is the best option. 

That is exactly what the Director of Customer Packaging Experience at Amazon, Kim Houchens, Ph.D. dreams of. She is quoted in the article, saying, "My goal would be zero packaging of any type over the next couple years."

As you can see in the video below, her job includes smashing packages with the intent of finding the optimal design that combines efficiency with protection. Their approach is this: “Every time we look at a product, we ask ourselves: What can we do different[ly]?" 


Attempting to eliminate packaging for the return trip

What the CNN article didn’t mention is that Amazon has been experimenting with reducing the packaging used for customer returns for certain items, including the pillows I referred to earlier. 

The pillows, like a huge number of other Amazon Prime products, were described as items with free shipping and free returns. Free and easy returns are important selling points for e-commerce retailers, as pointed out in Making Returns a Competitive Advantage

Consequently, many customers will only go ahead and click through to checkout if they can rest assured that the purchase is returnable, and preferably returnable with no additional cost. Back to the pillows, they were one pair among three that I was trying out with the intent to keep the best ones.

But when checking for a return label, I was surprised to discover that the instructions said that they were not to be dropped off at a UPS store, as is the usual case, but brought to a Kohl’s where they would not require any packaging. Any other return option would entail a substantial fee for UPS pickup or even a label for dropoff. 

It’s understandable why Amazon would seek a bricks-and-mortar partner to accept returns without having to bear the cost of shipping back. Nearly half of customers surveyed the Making Returns a Competitive Advantage report said they prefer returning in-store, finding it easiest because there is no need to play around with boxes, tape, packing slips, and labels that you have to print out yourself. 

However, and this is a very big “however,” customers want the choice to be their own. In other words, they like having the option of returning to a store they frequent, but they do not necessarily want to be forced to return to a store that’s not one they shop at regularly in order to get what was advertised as “free returns.”

The representative at Amazon did understand that and so did issue me the label I needed to ship the box back via UPS. What they didn’t quite grasp, though, is that if Amazon is going to adopt this policy of requiring returns in a store, they have to go about it differently and not just hide such a return imperative in the fine print. 

It is possible some people would embrace the chance to score one for the environment and spare themselves some tape and paper by returning the item to a store. Yet, they still need it to be a store location that is convenient for them and not just one that is convenient for Amazon.

Perhaps some machine learning can be applied to finding a solution for encouraging people to do Amazon returns to a store by helping Amazon find more than one store option for customers to use. Algorithms are already in use to help solve the packaging problem. 

Applying algorithms to finding the best packaging solutions 

According to the CNN article, “companies are shrinking their boxes by using algorithms that can tell them the precise dimensions they need to get an order from point A to point B.” In fact, this precision in packaging has become a business unto itself.

One of them is Packsize, which has the capability, according to the CNN report, to “automatically determine the optimal size for the combination of items that need to fit a box as soon as a customer clicks ‘buy,’ then route all the items onto a conveyor belt that automatically cuts and forms the box to size — no human assistance necessary.”

As Packsize put it, working out the smallest possible package delivers substantial savings for customers in terms of “time, money and the environment.”

Amazon also applies optimized engineering to solving the packaging problem. Its teams include “statisticians, operations researchers, data scientists, material engineers, and computational engineers,” according to the CNN report, particularly to think outside the box for packaging solutions ranging from cardboard to plastic to paper.

Machine learning helps it check progress on how thin its boxes can get without leaving contents susceptible to damage.  Amazon takes into account customer reports on items that failed to arrive intact to see where they may have erred too much on the side of reduction. 

Now Amazon has seen the fruits of its labors, having succeeded in cutting down the weight of packaging materials used by 19 percent as compared to the amount from their baseline of three years ago, Houchens told CNN.  That shows how thinking outside the box really pays off. 

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